Wish with the Candles by Lbilover


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Written for the 'Unconventional Courtship' challenge. For the challenge, you had to take a Mills & Boon (Harlequin) plot summary and write a story around it. I chose a story by Betty Neels called Wish with the Candles.


Summary (the actual book summary on which I based the story): "What was the use of wanting? Samwise Gamgee was a splendid paediatric surgical nurse, and the devastating Hobbiton surgeon Frodo Baggins, who was visiting Sam's hospital, realised this. He had the greatest respect and admiration for Sam, but this wasn’t quite the same as feeling love – and Sam knew that it was love he wanted from Frodo. But why would Frodo see Sam as more than an efficient colleague when far more attractive hobbits were his for the asking…?"


Warnings: Very AU. Completely absurd melange of hobbits and (1970s) modern human society. Schmoop. Stereotypical doctor/nurse romance accompanied by 1970s era tropes. The eensiest weensiest bit of medical yuckiness.


A/N 1: Back in my college days, someone left a half-dozen or so Betty Neels's Harlequin (Mills & Boon) books in the common room of my dorm and I read them. So sue me, lol. Mostly they were doctor/nurse romances and usually featured a handsome, successful surgeon, a plain, hard-working nurse, some romantic entanglement or misunderstanding, and (of course) a happy ending. I've thrown in as many of her other tropes as I can remember- her doctors often drive a Rolls or Bentley, they dress well, like to eat at posh restaurants, and have a gorgeous home which the plain, hard-working nurse gets to visit. A/N 2: This is set in roughly the same era as the original story (early 1970s) which puts it pre-cell phones, internet, etc. etc. Just assume that the Shire is much more forward thinking about gay relationships than the real world was then. (I like to think they would be...) A/N 3: I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. :P Any medical errors are entirely my own.



wish with the candles copy
wish with the candles copy
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"So what do you know about this new consultant?" Rose Cotton whispered to Samwise Gamgee as they finished prepping the operating theatre for the first surgery on the morning roster.


"Nothing," replied Sam. "Except that he's supposed to be a brilliant surgeon and he's going to be on staff for a month whilst Mr. Brockhouse is recovering from his hernia operation."


"Well, I do hope he's handsome. The frightfully rich part goes without saying. Do you know he drives a Rolls? Poppy saw it in the doctors' car park."


"What difference does it make to you if he's handsome or frightfully rich?" asked Sam.


Rose batted her long curly lashes, her best feature, and very enticing indeed over the top of a green surgical mask. She'd used to try that on him, until he pulled her aside and gently informed her that he was gay. "You don't think I'm letting a handsome, rich consultant come in here without trying my luck, do you? I don't mean to be a nurse forever, Sam. I want a husband and kids and a gorgeous smial."


"Good luck to you with Mr. Baggins then, Rosie." Sam spoke a little wistfully.


He didn't want to be a nurse forever either, when it came down to it. The truth was, he wasn't the career type, although his ambitions were far more modest than Rose's. A small hole with a bit of garden and a loving husband to cook and clean and care for: that was what he craved. And maybe eventually a few little ones by adoption.


For Sam loved children. It was the reason he'd trained as a paediatric surgical nurse in the first place. He was very good at his job, the best in fact - and that wasn't his opinion, but the opinion of his supervisor, Matron Sackville. She might strike terror into the hearts of all the other nurses on the paediatric surgical ward, but not Sam, who had a level head and an easy-going temperament that worked like a charm to soothe her irascible temper. It didn't hurt that he brought in the most delicious biscuits, cakes and muffins on a regular basis, not to curry favour with her or anyone else, but simply because he loved to bake and he loved to share what he baked.


Matron Sackville, Sam knew, was grooming him as the successor for her job at Northfarthing General. It was rumoured that she'd be retiring in another year or two. And he supposed that when that time came, he would take the reins from her capable hands. After all, what else was there for a hobbit like him? Plain, snub-nosed, sandy-haired, inclined to stoutness, who would look at him twice when there were other, more charming hobbits available? But Sam was a glass half-full sort, and he tempered his moments of gloom over his lack of romantic prospects by reminding himself of all he had to be thankful for.


Look at the poor wee one who had just been wheeled into the theatre. Like so many children diagnosed with a rare illness, Sancho Proudfoot had already spent too much of his young life in hospital. The lad, drowsy from pre-op sedation, had a weary resignation on his face as the orderlies carefully transferred him to the operating table that nearly broke Sam's loving heart. No child, he thought, should have such old eyes.


"My name's Sam," Sam said soothingly to the boy, as he attached one of the IV drips to a catheter in Sancho's thin arm. "And I don't want you to worry about a thing. Mr. Baggins is going fix you up all right and tight." Given the reputation that had preceded the consultant, Sam had to believe it was true.


"Hsst, here he comes," Rosie said, gesturing with her chin.


Sam looked round in time to see three hobbits in gowns and surgical masks come through the door to the theatre. Two of them Sam recognised: Matron Sackville and Mr. Brown, the chief paediatric anaesthetist. Between the latter two, his freshly scrubbed and gloved hands held up before him, strode a slender, upright figure who could only be the visiting consultant, Mr. Frodo Baggins.


Beside Sam, Rosie gave a low gasp of astonishment, and no wonder. I do hope he's handsome, she'd said. Well, Mr. Baggins was that all right and then some, thought Sam, a queer breathlessness overcoming him as he stared at the consultant's absurdly youthful countenance, dominated by a pair of vivid blue eyes that fairly sparkled with life and intelligence. He might not look as if he'd even come of age, but there was an aura about Frodo Baggins that immediately inspired Sam with confidence that this hobbit knew precisely what he was about.


Sam and Rosie stood at respectful attention as the medical team approached.


"These are Nurse Gamgee and Nurse Cotton, who will be assisting you for the morning surgery," said Matron in her no-nonsense manner. "Nurses, this is Mr. Frodo Baggins, who will be filling in for Mr. Brockhouse until he returns from his medical leave." She fixed them with her gimlet-eyed stare. "I expect you to give him your best. Do notdisappoint me."


"No, Matron," they murmured, although Sam knew Rosie was dying to roll her eyes. Matron had already lectured them thoroughly during their customary morning meeting to review the day's surgery roster.


"Good." Then, to their astonishment, a smile alleviated the sternness of her features. "I shall see you later, Frodo," she said, and departed.


Mr. Baggins nodded briskly by way of greeting and his bright blue eyes moved from Rosie to Sam and lingered a few heartbeats. Whether they approved of what they saw, Sam couldn't say, but there was no time to dwell on first impressions or wonder why Matron, that stickler for proper etiquette, had called the consultant by his first name and even smiled at him.


"Shall we get started?" Mr. Baggins asked coolly, pulling up his mask, and with that he took command of the operating theatre as a general might take command of an army.


~*~


"Whew, what a martinet," Rosie said a couple of hours later, as they scrubbed up after the operation. "Do you think he ever cracks a smile?"


It was true that Mr. Brockhouse was far more apt to joke around during surgery. He liked to maintain a light-hearted air in the theatre, playing pop tunes instead of the classical music that Mr. Baggins clearly preferred. But Sam approved whole-heartedly of Mr. Baggins's more serious demeanour and could find no fault with it.


Indeed, though Sam held a very high opinion of Mr. Brockhouse as a surgeon, Frodo Baggins impressed him as being in a class all by himself. Watching him operate was a privilege, much like watching a great artist at work: his every movement certain, precise and skillful. His orders were crisp, his expectation that Sam would have each instrument ready the instant he held out his hand clear.


That brought out the best in Sam, who found himself in perfect harmony with Mr. Baggins, responsive to his every command - indeed almost anticipating them. When the delicate procedure on young Sancho's intestines was completed, Sam felt drained but also exhilarated, for it looked certain to have saved the boy's life. It was for such moments of victory as these that he had become a paediatric nurse, and for the joy and relief they brought to the children's anxious parents.


"He's very good at his job, Rosie. That's all that needs concern you and me, not his smile," Sam replied.


Rosie sniffed.


But Sam wasn't being entirely truthful. As Sancho Proudfoot had been wheeled away to recovery, Mr. Baggins said to Sam, "Excellent work, Nurse Gamgee." Then he'd smiled.


Gazing into those smiling eyes, Sam had felt exhilaration of another sort altogether. After all, he was not only a nurse, he was a red-blooded hobbit, too.


~*~


Sam was in a thoughtful mood as he walked home after his shift to the rented hole he shared with several of the other charge nurses. The shift had flown by, as it always did, but there was no doubting that the presence of the handsome, blue-eyed Mr. Baggins added an element of excitement that had previously been lacking.


His high opinion of Mr. Brockhouse's replacement had grown higher with each successive surgery. Mr. Baggins was demanding but fair, and seemingly unflappable. Even when, at a critical moment during an intussusception surgery on a seven month-old child, Rosie fumbled and dropped a clamp, he only said mildly, "Steady on, Nurse Cotton," and waited without a sign of impatience for her to recover her composure and hand him a second clamp. Not another word about her gaffe, then or later, escaped his lips. Some consultants would have torn a strip off Rosie for the blunder.


Rosie knew it, too. She said to Sam later, when they were setting the theatre to rights after their shift, "He's all right, is Frodo Baggins. And ooh, those of eyes of his! I tell you what, Sam, I'm going to wangle a date with him or my name isn't Rose Cotton."


Sam sighed and pulled the collar of his jacket up higher against the raw damp. The afternoon was chilly, with leaden grey skies spritzing rain, but simply picturing Mr. Baggins's bright blue eyes and his smile warmed Sam inside.


The hiss of tyres on the wet pavement caught Sam's attention as a car slid up beside him. It was a silver Rolls-Royce and behind the wheel was none other than Frodo Baggins himself. Sam came to a halt, surprise, confusion and delight warring inside him.


The consultant put down the window and leaned over the console. "Can I give you a lift somewhere?" he asked.


Sam's initial impulse was to turn him down, not liking to impose. But he still had several miles to walk, the rain was coming down harder, and he'd left for work that morning without his umbrella. And well, the truth was, he wanted to accept the offer, and not only because he'd never ridden in a Rolls before.


"I'm on my way home and I'd be right glad of a lift. Thank you, sir. That's very kind of you," Sam said.


Frodo Baggins smiled and said, "Not at all. Hop in, and we'll be off."


Sam opened the passenger door and climbed inside the car; the interior was warm and smelled wonderfully of leather. The Rolls with its posh appointments was far too grand for the likes of him, but it suited Mr. Baggins, Sam thought. Mr. Brockhouse was the casual sort, favoring tweed jackets with elbow patches and corduroy slacks, and he drove a battered Mini. But Frodo Baggins wore a grey wool suit and a maroon silk tie with discreet navy stripes, and he looked every inch the accomplished and successful surgical consultant.


"Which way?" Mr. Baggins asked, putting the Rolls in gear and pulling away from the curb.


"Straight ahead to the third traffic signal and turn left, sir," Sam instructed, settling back into the seat, which was by far the cushiest he'd ever sat in. He supposed it would be easy to get used to a car like this. Not that he ever would have the chance, of course.


"We're not in the operating theatre now, Sam. You can call me Frodo if you like."


But Sam said, "I don't think it would be proper. If Matron heard me call you by your first name, she'd have my head on a platter."


"Oh, don't worry about my Aunt Lobelia. I can handle her."


Sam stared. "Aunt Lobelia?" he repeated. "Do you mean to say that Matron is your aunt?"


At that Frodo laughed, a delightful sound. "Don't be so shocked. Matrons can have nephews, you know."


Sam flushed with embarrassment. He'd put his foot in it, right and proper. "I'm sorry, sir. I didn't mean any offense."


"And none taken, I promise." The light ahead turned red. Frodo braked and looked at Sam. "My aunt thinks very highly of you, Sam, and that's no small thing. She is nothing if not a perfectionist, as I'm sure you know."


"I think highly of her, too," Sam replied honestly. "She's been kind to me." He hesitated and then said, "Is that how you ended up filling in for Mr. Brockhouse, sir? Because of Matron?"


"Yes, that's right. She asked me as a favour, and as I am her favourite nephew, or so she likes to claim, how could I turn her down?" He spoke lightly, but Sam somehow sensed that there was more to the story than he was letting on.


But that was none of Sam's affair, so he only said, "It was a rare piece of luck for us then, Mr. Baggins, and that's a fact. You've shown your quality: it's of the very highest."


Frodo smiled faintly. "The praise of the praiseworthy - there can be no greater commendation. Thank you, Sam. Tell me, are you from this area?" The signal turned green and they drove on.


The obviously deliberate change of topic did Frodo Baggins no harm in Sam's eyes; he only hoped Frodo didn't think he was trying to flatter him with specious compliments. He'd meant what he said, honestly and sincerely.


"I grew up in Gamwich," replied Sam. "In the West Farthing, about forty miles from here."


"Ah, I thought I recognised your accent. I'm from the West Farthing myself, but the other end; Hobbiton to be exact, although I grew up in Buckland." Frodo's smile widened. "But for the present I am quite happily settled in Long Cleeve. Tell me, where do people go to eat around here?"


For the remainder of the brief drive, they chatted about food, and Sam gave Frodo the names of some of the less expensive eateries in the vicinity of the hospital that the staff liked to frequent. Beyond that Sam had no clue, for he rarely ate out himself, and then only at the cheapest places. He saved and sent home to his elderly father as much of his salary as he could manage, and that left little over for more than the occasional take-out fried fish and chips.


All too soon, the Rolls was gliding to a stop in front of a shabby hole, its drabness somewhat relieved by the small front garden Sam maintained, in one of the poorer sections of town. The area was largely populated by university students or by single working-class lads and lasses not yet ready to start their own families. Expensive cars were not often seen there, and the Rolls created quite a stir in the neighborhood as it passed, hobbits stopping on the pavement and openly gawking from beneath their brollies.


"Thank you for the lift, Mr. Baggins," Sam said sincerely as he undid his seat belt. "It was kind of you to go out of your way like this."


"Not at all, Sam. It was my pleasure," replied Frodo. "And I do hope that one of these days you will overcome your aversion to calling me 'Frodo', at least outside working hours."


He spoke as if they were likely to meet regularly outside working hours, something that Sam highly doubted. As far as he could tell, this was a one-off. But he said, "I'll try my best." He climbed out of the car and added a little awkwardly, with one hand on the door, "Thank you again... Frodo."


"There, that wasn't so hard, was it?" Frodo said with a teasing grin. "And you are most welcome. Enjoy your evening, Sam."


Sam shut the car door, and Frodo lifted a hand in farewell and drove away. Sam resisted the urge to stand and stare after him, but instead with a small regretful sigh went up the puddly path to the front door and let himself in.


Hardly had Sam set toe on the threadbare hallway rug when his holemates, Tom and Jolly Cotton - Rosie's brothers who worked in the A&E department - Nick Goold and Milo Lightfoot, collared him and started firing questions at him. "Was that a Rolls, Sam?" "Who was driving it?" "Is he your new boyfriend?" "I don't suppose he'd lend me a hundred quid?"


Sam was laughing as he took off his still-damp jacket and hung it on a peg. "The car belongs to the new consultant, Mr. Baggins, him that's filling in for Mr. Brockhouse. He saw me walking home in the rain and offered me a lift. He was just being kind, is all."


They hooted with good-natured laughter at this; ribbing each other, especially about perceived romantic conquests, was a favourite pastime. "A likely story," said Tom. "Consultants don't hobnob with the hoi polloi, otherwise known as us."


"This one does, or did long enough to drive me home, at any rate. Now, can we leave off discussing Mr. Baggins and talk about what to have for dinner instead?" Sam complained. "I'm starving and I'm not in the mood for beans on toast."


Later that night, however, as Sam lay in bed with his head pillowed on his arms, reliving the events of the day, in particular those involving Frodo, he found himself wishing that he could have answered one of their questions in the affirmative: "Is he your new boyfriend?" There was no doubt about it, Frodo Baggins was the most attractive hobbit Sam had ever met. Unfortunately, he was also the least likely hobbit ever to want to date Sam.


Sam realised that he was going to have to keep a close guard on his emotions for the next few weeks, until Frodo Baggins had safely returned to Hobbiton. It wouldn't be easy, for he was by nature warm and outgoing, with a tendency to wear his heart on his sleeve.


I've got to manage it, somehow, Sam told himself, and then he fell asleep wondering if Frodo liked blueberry muffins. He planned to get up extra early and bake a batch to bring into work.


~*~


Sam was in Matron's office next morning with Rosie reviewing the surgery list when Frodo Baggins came in. The atmosphere in the room immediately altered; Matron's stern mien relaxed and Rosie lit up like a lantern. To Sam it seemed as if the room itself grew brighter with his presence. Frodo was wearing a white lab coat over his charcoal grey suit and light blue tie, and he looked, if possible, even handsomer than he had the previous day.


Sam was amused to see Rosie make a few quick, minute adjustments to her uniform and cap, and then employ those extravagant eyelashes, batting them outrageously at Frodo as he perched on the corner of Matron's desk. Sam couldn't help but notice, however, that Rosie's lashes weren't as extravagant as those of the hobbit at whom she was batting them.


"Good morning, Mr. Baggins," Rosie said, with just enough flirtatiousness in her voice to draw a sharp glance from Matron, who frowned. Rosie ignored her.


"Good morning, Nurse Cotton," Frodo replied pleasantly.


"Good morning, sir," Sam said, without any flirtatiousness in his voice, but he earned a smile anyway, and a 'good morning, Nurse Gamgee,' that sounded, to Sam's ear at least, several degrees warmer than the greeting Rosie had received. Not that that meant anything, of course, Sam knew. It was only that, as a result of their chance meeting the previous evening, he and Frodo were slightly better acquainted.


Frodo's gaze fell on the plate of muffins sitting on the opposite corner of Matron's desk. "Ah, blueberry muffins - my favourite." Without waiting for an invitation, he lifted a muffin from the plate and bit into it. His eyes went wide. "You've been hiding your light under a bushel, Aunt," he said thickly around his mouthful of muffin. "I had no idea you were such an accomplished baker."


It was difficult to say who was the more shocked, Sam or Rosie, when Matron Sackville actually laughed. Sam certainly would never have believed it possible. "My dear Frodo, much as I would like to take the credit, I can't. It is Nurse Gamgee who is the accomplished baker. We on the ward are simply the regular and grateful recipients of his largesse."


Those blue, blue eyes turned to Sam, causing his stomach to give an odd lurch. "You made these?" Frodo asked.


"Yes, sir," Sam replied, trying very hard not to blush at the consultant's admiring look.


"Well, I can see that I've been remiss in not visiting Northfarthing General sooner. My compliments."


"Thank you, sir." Despite himself, Sam's cheeks heated. He'd never been comfortable with receiving praise, preferring to go about his business without fuss or bother.


"Now, Frodo, don't go getting any ideas about stealing Samwise and spiriting him off to Bywater Medical Centre," said Matron in a scolding voice. "I should be most displeased to lose him."


"I wouldn't dream of it, Aunt," replied Frodo solemnly.


I'd go with him in a heartbeat if he asked, I would.


Frodo slid a sidelong look at him, and for a confused moment Sam wondered if he'd spoken the wish aloud. Either that or Frodo Baggins was a mind reader, for that look held an amused awareness, as if he knew precisely what Sam had been thinking.


But the moment passed too quickly for Sam to be at all certain that he was right, and the conversation turned to the scheduled patients and the procedures Frodo intended to use. He'd resumed the air of the cool, professional surgical consultant, and Sam felt undeniably relieved, like a hobbit caught in quicksand who'd managed to pull himself onto solid ground.


You're a ninnyhammer, Samwise Gamgee, Sam castigated himself as he and Rosie left Matron's office to prep the theatre. Just like Dad always says. Get your noggin out of the clouds and keep it out.


"Well, someone certainly made an impression on Frodo Baggins, and it wasn't me." Rosie sighed. "Maybe I should take up baking. Or maybe..."


"Maybe what?" asked Sam curiously.


But Rosie only said, "Oh nothing," and clammed up.


Girls, thought Sam in mystification. He would never understand them.


~*~


The morning list on that and the subsequent three days went by efficiently and in good order, without any unexpected crises, and the young patients' problems fixed by the superbly talented hands of Frodo Baggins. By now, he, Mr. Brown, Sam and Rosie were working together like a well-oiled machine, and Sam's admiration for Mr. Brockhouse's replacement rose higher and higher with each successive surgery.


Frodo was, not unexpectedly, in high demand, and it seemed that every time Sam set eyes on him outside the operating theatre, he was accompanied by a gaggle of admiring medical students, or several of the other consultants. As for the nurses, well, any unattached consultant was considered fair game, and many were the machinations employed to gain the attention of the handsome and rich Mr. Baggins.


Sam paid little heed to gossip in the general way, but in this instance he was kept abreast of developments by Rosie, who reported to him that thus far no one had succeeded in scoring so much as a cup of tea with Frodo.


"He has lunch every day with Matron," exclaimed Rosie, outraged.


"She is his aunt, after all," Sam pointed out.


"Exactly! Who in Middle-earth eats lunch with his aunt?"


It was on the tip of Sam's tongue to retort that a consultant determined to avoid the numerous snares being set for him by equally determined nurses would, but he bit it. In any event, he wasn't in the running, for despite the fact that Frodo made it a point to stop in Matron's office each morning for a cuppa and to sample Sam's daily baked offering, which he consumed with obvious appreciation and enjoyment, that was the extent of their contact outside the operating theatre.


It was no more than Sam had expected, but whenever he walked past the doctors' car park and glimpsed the familiar silver Rolls-Royce, he felt wistful; and each night he fell asleep with the memory of that fleeting journey in his mind and heart.


Friday morning arrived, the end of Frodo's first week at Northfarthing General, and it was, from Sam's point of view, a disappointment. Frodo didn't put in his usual appearance in Matron's office, though Sam had made a batch of his famous frosted sticky buns, and when he came into the theatre with Mr. Brown, his usual warm smile of greeting was absent and he appeared distracted, as if he had something on his mind.


But he performed the scheduled surgeries with his usual unflappable calm and confidence, although when young Mirabella Goodbody, the last patient on the list, was wheeled away after her bowel resection, he didn't linger, as he had on the previous days. With only a brief, almost curt, 'Thank you, Nurse Cotton, Nurse Gamgee,' Frodo strode away. He seemed to be in rather a hurry.


"I'll wager he has a hot date," whispered Rosie as the door to the theatre closed behind him. "He'd never rush off to have lunch with Matron."


"That's none of our look-out, Rosie," replied Sam in repressive tones.


"Oh, don't be such a stick in the mud, Sam. It's hobbit nature to wonder. Aren't you even a little curious?"


"No," Sam lied; he was in fact burning with curiosity. "Now, are we going to stand here flapping our gums or set this theatre to rights? Matron won't be best pleased if Mr. Roper is kept waiting."


Sam was aware of a slight depression of his spirits as he finished his shift, try as he might to shrug it off. It didn't help that as he was walking home, a familiar Rolls-Royce drove by - and it didn't pull over to the curb and stop this time. But Sam got a glimpse through the windscreen as it passed, and in the front passenger seat sat a young, good-looking hobbit who appeared to be on the best of terms with Frodo, to judge by his animated, laughing face. Sam had never seen him before, and wondered who he was. The hot date Rosie had mentioned?


That's none of your look-out, Sam, like you said to Rosie, he scolded himself. 'The biggest fool is one who minds the business of others rather than minding his very own.' It was one of his father's favourite aphorisms, but on this occasion provided little consolation.


Sam knew what would put things in a proper perspective, however. He stopped walking, turned right around and headed back the way he'd come.


~*~


"And then the dragon flew off in a rage toward Laketown, revenge on his mind. But Bard the Bowman saw him coming and organised the archers, who started shooting at him. Back and forth Smaug flew above the town, spewing fire and diving through the hail of arrows that hit his scaled sides and fell away. And then Bard took out his lucky black arrow and blessed it. He set the arrow to the string, drew back his great bow, and let the arrow fly. It struck Smaug in the hollow of his left front leg - the one spot that wasn't protected by scales or jewels. The dragon let out a deafening shriek, flew up in the air, turned over and then fell with a mighty splash, smack in the middle of the lake!"


"Oh," breathed Sancho Proudfoot, his eyes wide. "Did Smaug die?"


"He did," said Sam. "And they say his body still lies there to this very day, though all that's left is his bones."


"I wish I could see them," Sancho said wistfully. "But I've always been too poorly to travel."


"Not anymore," interjected another voice. "You'll be perfectly fit to travel in a few months, Sancho."


Sam, sitting in a chair by Sancho Proudfoot's hospital bed, looked around. Frodo was standing at the foot of the bed, holding Sancho's medical chart in his hand and wearing a curious expression on his handsome face. Sam wondered how long he'd been listening in. He had a feeling it had been for some little while, but he'd been too engrossed in his storytelling and Sancho too engrossed in his story to notice. Sam half-rose from the chair out of deference, but Frodo shook his head and made a little motion with his hand to indicate that Sam should remain seated, and he sank back down.


Frodo flipped through the chart, returned it to the holder, and then smiled at Sancho. "You keep throwing out numbers like these, my lad, and your parents will be taking you to Laketown before you know it."


"Truly?" Sancho sounded as if he could hardly believe it, and no wonder, thought Sam, after all he'd been through.


"Truly." Frodo moved to the other side of the bed and took Sancho's thin wrist, checking his pulse. "How are you feeling?" he asked gently, scrutinising the boy's face with his keen blue eyes.


"Much better, Mr. Baggins. But I'm awful hungry and they won't let me have anything to eat but soup and yoghurt and pudding," Sancho complained.


Frodo glanced at Sam and Sam knew what he was thinking: a child complaining about the food he was being given was a child on the mend. In the four days since Sancho's surgery, the boy had made remarkable strides.


"Your insides aren't quite ready for anything solid," Frodo explained, releasing Sancho's wrist and placing his palm briefly against his forehead. "But I think we can safely let you have scrambled eggs for breakfast tomorrow and some ice cream with your lunch and dinner. How does that sound?"


"Chocolate?" Sancho asked hopefully.


"Chocolate scrambled eggs? I've never heard of chocolate scrambled eggs, but I don't see why not."


Sancho giggled. "Ice cream, not eggs, silly," he said.


If the eminent consultant minded being called 'silly' by one of his patients, he didn't show it. His eyes were twinkling as he replied, "Ah, I see. Well, I will speak to the kitchen staff and see what we can do."


Just then Sancho's parents, Olo and Rosemary Proudfoot, returned from the canteen, where they'd gone to eat a hasty supper whilst Sam entertained their son. Though visibly exhausted from their ordeal, the Proudfoots also had real hope in their eyes, probably, Sam thought, for the first time since Sancho had been diagnosed. Their faces lit up at the sight of Frodo, and no doubt they saw him as their son's saviour, as indeed he was.


Frodo answered their numerous questions patiently and thoroughly, reassuring them that all was well with their son and he was making steady progress toward a full recovery. He brushed off their fervent expressions of gratitude and when Rosemary Proudfoot began to cry, whipped out a linen handkerchief embroidered with his initials and pressed it into her hand.


Poppy Banks, the on-duty night nurse and Rosie's closest friend, joined the small group and Sam, seeing that his presence was now redundant, said softly to Sancho, "I'd best be getting on home, Sancho. I'll look in on you tomorrow, if you like."


"Oh yes, Sam, please. And will you tell me more of the story about Burglar Bilbo and the Dwarves?" Sancho begged.


"That I will and gladly," replied Sam with a smile. And then, not without a pang of regret for leaving Frodo's company, even if his own was neither required nor desired, he got up and stole quietly away.


As he'd not yet had his supper and his stomach was reminding him of the fact, Sam made for the hospital canteen where he could get a cheap, hot and filling meal, if not a very palatable one. But shortly after he sat down at table with a plate of slightly scorched bangers and watery mash, a voice said, "Aha, so here you are."


Sam's startled eyes flew up to meet those of Frodo Baggins. "Were you looking for me, sir?" he asked.


"I was." Frodo contemplated the food on Sam's plate. "Is that as awful as it looks?" he asked.


"Worse," admitted Sam.


"Well, I've not yet had my supper, Nurse Gamgee, but I'm not prepared to dine on charcoal bricks with a side of library paste."


An involuntary grin broke out on Sam's face at the description of the food. "Can't say as I blame you, Mr. Baggins."


"Then come along. I know of a better place to eat, and it's only a short drive from here."


"But I can't," Sam protested, though he was tempted to accept Frodo's offer. "I've already paid for this meal, and it's not right to let good food go to waste."


Frodo frowned. "By no stretch of the imagination can that food be called 'good'. In fact, as a doctor, I consider it my bounden duty to prevent you from eating it for the sake of your health. And," he added blandly, "since you have already paid for one dinner, as you so rightfully pointed out, then you must allow me to treat you. It's only fair, after all."


Sam had a feeling he was being managed, but decided that it would be churlish of him to refuse, and Frodo did have a point about the bangers and mash. He'd probably be up half the night with indigestion if he ate them. "All right," he said, pushing back his chair and getting up.


"Good," Frodo said with a warm smile. "I'll be glad of the company. I hate to eat alone."


So it was that, barely ten minutes later, Sam was once again ensconced in the Rolls's luxurious interior. During the brief drive, his mind turned to the good-looking young hobbit he'd seen laughing in this very same seat only a few hours earlier. What had happened to him? Sam wondered. Was it foolish of him to hope that the unknown had gone back to wherever he'd come from? Perhaps, but nevertheless, hope Sam did.


The Fauntling restaurant was not one of those that Sam had recommended to Frodo. It was, like Frodo and his car, entirely out of Sam's league. In fact, Sam had had no idea Long Cleeve even harboured such a place, tucked away on a side street in an understated but very posh hole with nothing but a discreet brass name plate on the dark green door to give away the fact that it wasn't a residence.


As they were shown to their table by the restaurant host, an intimidating figure clad in a severely cut black suit and white dress shirt, Sam became uneasily aware that the other male diners were dressed similarly to Frodo. He was once again supremely elegant in a perfectly tailored dark blue suit and an oyster silk tie, whilst Sam had on a pair of sturdy but well-worn twill trousers and his favourite brown woollen jumper. But no one looked askance at him, so he decided not to fret, but simply savour the experience - because it was doubtful that he would ever have the chance to eat in a restaurant of this calibre again.


And The Fauntling was a marvel of elegance, from the snowy linens and the gold-rimmed china, to the fine crystal and the sterling flatware, to the porcelain bud vase containing a single exquisite pale pink orchid, frilled like a nurse's cap. Everything was of the finest, but finest of all, to Sam's mind, was the blue-eyed hobbit sitting across from him, his fair countenance rendered fairer than ever by the warm golden light from the flickering candle in the centre of the small round table they shared.


It seemed like some impossible dream to Sam, that he should be in such a place - and with Frodo, too. Keep your head and your wits about you, he cautioned himself. It's naught but that he wanted company, and you were to hand.


Their waiter appeared, winking into view as if he'd been summoned by a wizard's spell, and handed them their menus, already opened. Even they were a marvel, bound in rich brown leather and with the menu items hand-written in dark gold ink on the finest parchment.


Sam nearly started drooling as he read through the list of starters, appetizers and sweets. Never in his life had he thought to have the chance to sample the sort of food he'd read about in the restaurant reviews in the Four Farthings Chronicle, and he wanted to try everything. I'll never be able to make up my mind, he thought. Not with such an embarrassment of riches to choose from.


But then he noticed, uneasily, that not a single price was listed on the menu. His heart sank. If you have to ask, I reckon you can't afford it then, his old dad liked to say. And though Frodo presumably could afford it, Sam began to fret over what this was going to cost, and wished he could figure out which were likely to be the cheapest dishes.


Sensing eyes upon him, he glanced up to find Frodo watching him with a speculative expression, one that made Sam suspect that once more his thoughts had been read.


"See anything you like, Sam?" was all Frodo said, however.


Sam huffed a little laugh. "Too many things, to be honest."


Frodo cocked a considering eyebrow. "Would you prefer that I order for the both of us?"


Maybe that would be for the best, Sam thought. Left to himself, he was likely to bungle things badly and order the most expensive items on the menu. "If you wouldn't mind, Frodo, I'd be that grateful."


"Not at all, Sam," Frodo said with a pleased smile that approved the use of his first name. "I've been told the roast saddle of rabbit is particularly good. Will that do, with the cheese soufflé for starters?"


"Oh aye," Sam replied with enthusiasm.


Frodo's smile widened. "Excellent. And may I say how glad I am that you appreciate good food as much as I do? It seems every hobbit these days is on a diet."


"I reckon I should be myself." Frodo was lithe as an Elf, and made Sam all too well aware of his own stoutness, a stoutness that his daily walks to and from hospital did nothing to diminish.


But Frodo said, "Indeed? You look perfectly fit to me."


Which was, Sam supposed wryly, a compliment of a sort.


"Now," continued Frodo, "we need a nice red wine to accompany our meal." He picked up the wine list and consulted it. "A '63 Old Winyards, I think."


Their waiter winked back into view with an elegant, napkin-lined silver basket filled with fragrant, fresh-baked bread, still steaming slightly from the middle. "Are you ready to order, sirs?" he asked as he set down the basket.


"We are," said Frodo crisply, and gave the waiter their selections with an assurance that showed he was well accustomed to dining in establishments such as this.


When the waiter had gone, Sam asked curiously, "How did you hear about this place?" He very much doubted that Matron had told him.


"My cousin Meriadoc Brandybuck," replied Frodo, and a flicker of some indefinable emotion flitted across his face as he selected a piece of bread. He went on, seeming to choose his words with care, "Merry came up from Buckland yesterday for a visit and he has a knack for sniffing out the best places to dine wherever he goes."


Sam's mind immediately went to the hobbit he'd seen earlier in Frodo's car. Had that been Meriadoc Brandybuck, and if so, why wasn't he dining with Frodo?


No doubt perceiving the unspoken question, for he appeared to be quite adept at reading Sam's mind, Frodo said, "Alas, Merry was obliged to return home this afternoon. But I shall have to thank him for the recommendation next time I see him."


Sam didn't know what to say, so he kept his mouth shut, but Frodo didn't appear to expect any response. He picked up the silver basket and offered it to Sam. "Bread?"


Sam took a slice, and as he buttered it with a curl of the palest, finest quality butter he'd ever seen, Frodo said, "Mrs. Proudfoot was disappointed that you left before she could speak with you, Sam. She is very grateful to you, you know. Sancho has been through a lot these past months, and has little trust in doctors or hospitals. She said you've done him a world of good."


Sam concentrated on his buttering and tried not to blush. "Not as much good as you have. You saved his life, Frodo."


"I did my job, at which I am, I will state with no false modesty, very, very good. But it's not only a child's body that needs fixing, but his mind, too. You have a knack for connecting with the patients, Sam, and that's truly a gift from Eru."


"I love children, is all," Sam said. "And I reckon it does me a world of good to visit with them. Makes my own troubles shrink to their proper size, you might say."


"You are very wise, Sam," Frodo said quietly.


"I wouldn't say that. It's only common sense, like."


"Would that more hobbits had your common sense then, and your caring heart." Frodo paused, and turned the bread over in his fingers. "It will come as no surprise to you, I'm certain, that my aunt envisions you stepping into her footprints after she retires - she has made no secret of it, I believe. It will be a very good career move for you, Sam, if you take it."


"Maybe," replied Sam. "But there's many a slip twixt the cup and the lip as my dad likes to say. No telling what might happen before Matron is ready to retire."


Sam was anxious to avoid this particular line of discussion. Frodo, like Matron, appeared to view Sam as wedded to his work and with no other path laid before him except to take over from Matron and end his days in the traces, alone and unmarried. It was a depressing thought, made more so because Sam now saw clearly an alternate path, even if he was about as likely to step onto it as he was to sprout wings and fly to the moon.


Fortunately the waiter chose that moment to reappear with the wine, which Frodo tasted and approved with a decided nod and an "Excellent, thank you." He spoke and acted with the unselfconsciousness of one born to an upper crust lifestyle, and it brought home to Sam anew the vastness of the gulf between them.


"A toast," Frodo said, after the waiter had filled their glasses and departed, and held out his glass. "To further successful surgeries."


Sam gently clinked his against it, sighing a little inside at the prosaic toast, and then took a cautious sip. He'd never much cared for red wine, preferring ale, but the first taste of Old Winyards illuminated his ignorance and showed him what he'd been missing.


"Oh, this is grand," he said with enthusiasm, and downed a second, larger taste. The wine, mellow, rich and fruity, slid down his throat like melted butter and sparked a warm glow in the pit of his stomach.


"Easy, Sam," Frodo laughingly cautioned. "Old Winyards is potent stuff."


He was right. By the time their starters arrived, Sam's head was buzzing pleasantly, and the glow had spread throughout his body. The cheese soufflé cooked on double cream was a revelation. "Well," he said, after his first bite of the lighter-than-air soufflé that practically dissolved on his tongue, "if I could make a soufflé like this, I'd call myself a cook."


Sam's memory of that meal was ever afterward somewhat of a blur, albeit a happy blur, for the Old Winyards was indeed potent, and he became, if not drunk, then definitely tipsy. The wine loosened his tongue, and he seemed to have an awful lot to say, about the food and his family and the hospital. Frodo didn't appear to mind Sam's chattiness. In fact, he encouraged him to talk and was quite interested in all Sam had to say.


"You're trying to draw me out, aren't you?" Sam accused, for the thought had popped into his brain in the midst of a rambling discourse on the beauty of the countryside around Gamwich, and his love of gardening.


Frodo's blue eyes were twinkling as he replied, "Guilty as charged. You don't mind, do you? I enjoy hearing you talk."


Sam shook his head in puzzlement, but regretted it as the dining room tipped dizzily for a moment. "Can't say as I understand why, Frodo. I reckon 'boring' is the best word to describe me. B-O-R-I-N... uh..." His voice trailed off as the last letter eluded him.


He wouldn't have thought an eminent consultant could giggle, and so enchantingly at that, but Frodo proved him wrong. "G, Sam. The letter you are hunting is 'G'. And you are far from boring. Now, go on. You were saying something about your father's knack for growing potatoes?"


"Oh aye, that's right." And Sam was off again.


The roast saddle of rabbit was everything it was touted to be and more, but even better in Sam's opinion was what Frodo ordered for their afters: a drool-worthy dense bitter chocolate cake with raspberry sauce and lashings of whipped cream, accompanied by a pale gold dessert wine that put the finishing touch on Sam's blissful tipsiness.


"Oh my word," Sam said, scraping the last bit of chocolate from his plate with the edge of his fork. "Do you think they'd mind if I licked the plate clean?"


Frodo laughed. "I wouldn't advise it, Sam. And besides, you need to save a little room for the cheese plate."


"I'm not sure I've any room left to save," Sam said, but when confronted with the ravishing assortment of farmhouse cheeses, realised that he did, in fact, have room for a little more, and did justice to them, every last one.


Sam wasn't too tipsy to experience a pang of guilt when the bill arrived and Frodo pulled out a brown leather wallet. He opened his mouth, but the look Frodo gave him, mingling amused comprehension with an unspoken warning that any apology Sam voiced would not be welcome, withered the words on his tongue. Well, he'd accepted Frodo's offer to treat him to dinner, hadn't he? And truthfully, he was feeling much too mellow to fuss about it.


It was late when they finally left the restaurant, and Sam sat in a haze of joy as Frodo drove the Rolls through the quiet streets. When they pulled up in front of the hole, Sam didn't move. He wished it weren't necessary for him to get out of the car and return to his workaday world, that instead he could remain cocooned with Frodo inside the Rolls's warm interior that smelled of leather and some indefinably alluring scent that came from the hobbit sitting beside him.


"Thank you for keeping me company, Sam," Frodo said into the silence. "I've rarely enjoyed a meal more."


Sam realised that, whether he would or no, he was going to have to bestir himself, and that Frodo was no doubt waiting for him to do so. "Neither have I, Frodo," he replied sincerely. "It was truly grand, and I can't thank you enough for asking me." He reached for the door handle, intending to add a hasty 'good-night' and escape before his wine-loosened tongue could get him into trouble by saying any of the other things that hovered on its tip.


But Frodo stopped him with a light touch on his arm. Startled, Sam whipped his head round so quickly that it swam, and then something happened that made it swim even more. Frodo leaned over and kissed him, full on the lips. It was only a brief kiss, barely more than a gentle press, but its effect on Sam was shattering.


"Good night, Sam," Frodo said, drawing back and smiling at him.


"Good - good night, Frodo," Sam stuttered, and without the slightest idea of how he arrived there, found himself inside the hole with his fingertips pressed to his tingling lips and his mind in a whirl.


~*~


By the time he returned to work on Monday morning, Sam was half convinced that he'd dreamed the entire improbable evening, and not only because he woke next day with a throbbing headache, courtesy of the wine he'd drunk. Certainly, Frodo's demeanour did nothing to discourage that impression, for he breezed into Matron's office whilst she, Rosie and Sam were going over the Monday surgery roster, and greeted Sam with his usual kind smile and a placid 'Good morning, Nurse Gamgee'. Sam watched him covertly whilst he munched on a slice of lemon poppyseed cake and drank his tea, but not by so much as the flicker of an eyelid did Frodo invoke any awareness of the dinner they had shared, or the kiss that had followed it.


But then why should he? Sam asked himself as he walked home that afternoon. Frodo was a sophisticated hobbit of the world, and to him such a kiss was likely meaningless and the meal they had shared only that: a meal. It was Sam's own fault that he'd spent virtually the entire weekend replaying the evening over and over in his mind, and that the kiss, brief though it was, had left him yearning for others. Frodo had intended to have dinner with his cousin, Merry Brandybuck, and only asked Sam as a substitute so that he wouldn't have to eat alone.


It didn't help matters that on Tuesday, whilst they were scrubbing for the first surgery, Rosie whispered, "Did you hear the latest about Mr. Baggins, Sam?"


Sam didn't even pretend to be uninterested or scold Rosie for spreading gossip. "What about him?"


"According to Poppy, who got it from Petunia Bracegirdle, whose sister lives near Hobbiton, the reason he agreed to fill in for Mr. Brockhouse is because he's recovering from a broken heart." She sighed. "Reckon I won't get the chance to mend it, more's the pity. Seems it was his boyfriend that broke it, fooling around behind his back. He needed to get away and lick his wounds in private."


Sam set aside the scrub brush and rinsed his hands under the tap, watching the soap suds swirl down the drain, and remembering his sense, when he first met Frodo, that there was more to his coming to Long Cleeve than simply to accommodate his aunt. He said soberly, "If that's the truth, Rosie, then I'm right sorry for Mr. Baggins."


"Oh Sam, you are a dear. And I do wish..." But Rosie never finished the thought, for Frodo and Mr. Brown came into the scrub room.


Sam's eyes flew to Frodo, and he seemed to see him through new eyes, not only as the handsome, brilliant, successful and wealthy consultant who had won Sam's admiration, respect and love, but as an ordinary hobbit, hurting, vulnerable and maybe even lonely.


Frodo caught him watching, and Sam quickly looked away and started drying his hands, but the confused jumble of feelings he had for Frodo now included an aching tenderness. With every fibre of his being he longed to show Frodo that there was love and aplenty waiting if he only looked around him. But then Sam's mind conjured up the laughing face of the hobbit in the Rolls with Frodo the previous Friday, and he thought it far more likely that if anyone was going to mend Frodo's broken heart, it would be Merry Brandybuck, not Samwise Gamgee.


~*~


"Nurse Gamgee, may I speak with you for a moment, please?"


"Yes, sir."


"Thank you." Frodo, dressed in scrubs with a light blue cap confining his dark curls and a surgical mask pulled down beneath his chin, gestured to Sam to go ahead of him into an empty patient lounge. Sam did so, consumed with curiosity - and also, if truth be told, a heart beating faster with a mixture of excitement and hope that, despite his best efforts, could not be squashed flat. After all, Frodo wished to speak with him alone, for the first time since their dinner at The Fauntling, all of ten days ago now, and seeming ever more like a distant dream.


"I was wondering," Frodo said when they were inside with the door closed, "if I might ask a favour of you."


"Of course," Sam replied without hesitation.


At that Frodo smiled faintly. "You haven't heard what the favour is yet."


"I reckon you wouldn't ask if it weren't important."


"Very true, and as a matter of fact it is important, to me at least, though whether you will think so is another matter."


Anything that's important to you is important to me, Sam thought, especially since learning from Rosie about Frodo's broken heart. Over the ensuing days, Sam thought he'd observed, on more than one occasion, a trace of wistfulness about Frodo, as if he were longing for something, or someone, out of reach.


If Frodo read his mind this time, Sam couldn't say, but he went on, as if taking Sam's reply as a given, "My young cousin, Peregrin Took, is recovering from appendicitis surgery, and though he has reached the stage where he no longer needs constant nursing, he is not strong enough yet to resume his normal activities."


"Oh, the poor lad," Sam exclaimed.


At that Frodo unexpectedly laughed. "Say rather, 'Oh, his poor parents'. For the truth is, my Aunt Eglantine and Uncle Saradoc are at their wits' end dealing with his, ah, reviving high spirits, and they are in desperate need of a break."


Sam grinned. As a paediatric surgical nurse, he'd dealt with more than a few frazzled parents and their recuperating children. "Driving them to distraction, is he?"


"Completely. And that is where you come in - if you are willing, that is. I've offered to watch Pippin for them this coming weekend, as I was already planning on returning to Hobbiton, but I have other matters needing my attention after being absent for three weeks. My housekeeper, Mrs. Rumble, has her own duties to attend to, and in any case, she's at an age where she shouldn't have to try and keep up with a rambunctious ten year-old. In short, Sam, I could use a helping hand with him, and there is no one I would trust more than you."


Whatever Sam had expected, it wasn't this, and whilst it wasn't remotely a romantic offer, still, he was sensible of the high honour Frodo was paying him. It was obvious that his young cousin was dear to him.


"My aunt and uncle will pay you for your time, of course," Frodo said, "and I guarantee you will earn every penny. Pippin has always been an energetic child and rather easily bored. We would drive down Friday evening and return Sunday evening, if that is agreeable to you and you don't have other plans for the weekend." He cocked his head to one side. "So, what do you say? Will you do it?"


"Of course," Sam replied at once, and added with a rueful smile, "I reckon the laundry can wait a few more days."


Frodo returned his smile. "Excellent," he said. "I'm relieved to know I won't be disrupting any plan more scintillating than a visit to the laundrette. I expect a hobbit as popular as you are must have many social engagements on the weekend."


Sam tried not to goggle at this statement. Whilst it was true that he had many friends at hospital, and he and his holemates could often be found at the pub of a Saturday evening after cheering on the Long Cleeve Rugby Football Club, he hardly thought of himself as 'popular', or considered such outings to be 'social engagements'.


"You must be confusing me with some other hobbit," Sam joked, and for a fleeting instant something akin to genuine relief passed over Frodo's fine features. He really does need me to help with his cousin, thought Sam.


Accordingly, that Friday afternoon Sam was waiting outside his hole with a small, rather battered valise at his feet when Frodo swept up in the Rolls. Sam's holemates were all present, claiming that they wanted to keep him company whilst he waited, but in reality eager to get a closer look at the famous consultant's car, not to mention the consultant himself.


Despite Sam's best efforts to convince them that there was nothing going on between him and Frodo Baggins, and that this trip to Hobbiton was strictly work-related, they refused to let go of the idea, especially since Sam told them about his supper with Frodo at The Fauntling. Sam was too easygoing to mind their nosiness, but also he knew that they genuinely cared about him and wanted nothing more than for him to be in a loving relationship. Each currently had a girlfriend, but they liked to joke that Sam put every girl they knew in the shade and that some lucky fellow was going to get a real treasure in Sam.


If Frodo minded the welcoming committee, he didn't show it, but was pleasantness itself when Sam introduced him to Tom, Jolly, Nick and Milo. They chatted for a few minutes about the hospital and the departments they worked in, and discussed the prospects for the Long Cleeve Rugby Football Club to defeat the Hobbiton Millers, currently riding a five game winning streak, in their upcoming match. Frodo gave them a brief look under the Rolls's bonnet, and promised them a drive in it the following week, before he left Long Cleeve for good.


Then Sam put his valise in the boot beside Frodo's much larger and far more elegant suitcase, climbed into the passenger seat, and they were off. He turned around and waved to Tom, Jolly, Nick and Milo, who beamed and gave him four thumbs up. They couldn't be convinced nohow that this wasn't a mini-break but a working holiday, Sam thought ruefully, but then mentally shrugged and settled back to enjoy the ride.


The Rolls made light work of the journey, speeding east along the dual carriageway through the Bindbale Woods. When they reached Oatbarton, Frodo suggested they stop for a quick bite to eat at a pub he knew, The Drunken Pigg, and Sam readily agreed.


The food was excellent and the draft beer superiour, but Sam drank only a half-pint, not desirous of any repetition of his tipsiness, especially as he was in essence Frodo's employee for the weekend. He set his foot down when Frodo attempted to pay for his meal, though he wasn't brave enough to insist on paying for them both. He was becoming fairly adept at reading Frodo's facial expressions, and the slight thinning of those fine nostrils when Sam edged in that direction told him it was a lost cause.


When they were back in the car and heading south on the motorway toward Hobbiton through the gathering dusk, Sam attempted to turn the conversation to a discussion of his nursing duties, but Frodo wasn't having any of it.


"There's time enough for that later, Sam," he said firmly.


"Well, then tell me about your home," suggested Sam. He'd told Frodo plenty about his home during their dinner atThe Fauntling, more than he probably ought, and truth be told, he was curious about the place where he'd be spending the weekend.


It proved a happy inspiration. "Ah, Bag End," Frodo said with obvious fondness. "It would take far longer than this drive to tell you everything about it, for it has been in the Baggins family for time out of mind. Indeed, it was built by the father of none other than Burglar Bilbo himself, though that was many, many generations ago and the smial has been remodelled and modernised over the years. The Bagginses have tried not to spoil the character of the original, however, and overall I believe we've succeeded."


"But I thought Mad Baggins was only a legend," said Sam, surprised. "Them dragon bones I was telling Sancho about aren't real. The folk at Laketown only put 'em in the water to attract tourists, or so I've read."


"Perhaps, but Smaug did once exist, as did Thorin and the other Dwarves, and Mad Baggins, who was quite as eccentric as the legend makes him out to be. My Uncle Bilbo, who adopted me after my parents died when I was twelve, is named for him, and perhaps it goes with the name, but he is nearly as eccentric as the original." Frodo glanced at Sam and grinned. "When I came of age he deeded Bag End to me and took off to travel the world. I get postcards from him now and again. The last I heard he had taken up a temporary position teaching Elvish literature at a university in Harad, something that is right up his alley for he is a true scholar."


But Sam was less interested in the whereabouts of Frodo's uncle than he was in something else Frodo had said. "I didn't know you'd lost your parents," he said, his tender heart wrung with pity. "I'm that sorry, Frodo. I lost my own mum when I was a faunt." He didn't honestly remember her, only a vague impression of softness swathed in the scent of honeysuckle, and a gentle voice singing to him as he rocked in his cradle.


"Thank you, Sam," Frodo replied quietly. "It was a long time ago now, but the sense of loss never entirely fades, does it? However, I've been blessed with a loving family who did their best to make up for the loss and have supported me in every possible way. I'm very lucky."


Sam had to bite his tongue hard here. He wanted to say that he could understand why Frodo's family had been supportive, because there were so very many things about Frodo Baggins to love - and then go on to enumerate those things in detail.


Frodo continued, thankfully not giving Sam time to make a fool of himself, "But we've drifted from the subject, which is Bag End. I'm very much looking forward to showing it to you, Sam. Perhaps it's my partiality speaking, but I don't think there's a finer smial in the entire country. The gardens are particularly lovely, although my gardener, Rodger Twofoot, has been making noises about retiring, and the prospect of finding a replacement for him is already giving me nightmares."


"I reckon there's a mort of work involved in owning a home like yours," Sam said, thinking of other grand estates he'd seen featured in magazines or on the telly.


"There is, although it's entirely worth it, believe me. But I'd be lying if I said there aren't times when I wish I had someone with whom I could share the work."


"You mean an estate manager or something like that?" Sam asked. In truth, he had only a hazy notion of what running a smial like Bag End actually entailed or how many hobbits it would take to maintain it.


Frodo's laugh sounded a trifle rueful to Sam's ear. "Not exactly," he replied. "And I do have my housekeeper, Mrs. Rumble. She's a dear, and I know you'll get on with her like a hole on fire."


"What about young Master Pippin?"


"If I tell you the sole reason that child is still alive is his ability to charm the proverbial birds from the trees, will that do?"


"I don't know whether to be impressed or alarmed," Sam joked.


"With luck he'll be safely in bed and asleep by the time we get to Bag End," Frodo said. "My uncle and aunt thought it better to arrange matters that way. As soon as they've had a chance to meet you and fill you in on anything you need to know regarding your nursing duties, they'll be off to the White Towers Resort and return on Sunday afternoon."


Sam had heard of the resort, a posh place out west that catered to a clientele of the well-to-do and the famous. Rosie had showed him a glossy brochure once, and sighed and said that it would be lovely to be able to afford even a weekend there. "Do you know they have an entire wing just for pedicare? Imagine it, Sam: deep tissue massages, hot oil treatments, foot-hair threading... Oh, to be rich - or at least to have a rich boyfriend!"


Sam hadn't been able to imagine it, as a matter of fact, and couldn't now, but it was yet more evidence that between him and Frodo Baggins loomed a gulf wider than the Brandywine River. But dwelling on that gulf was foolish, considering where he was and who he was with - for that was far more than he'd ever imagined he'd have of Frodo Baggins.


He said, "I reckon I can manage to survive him for that long."


Frodo laughed. "I reckon you can, but don't be complacent. That's when Pippin is at his most dangerous."


"Maybe you ought to fill me in on a few of his, um, adventures. An ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure, as they say."


"Perhaps I should," Frodo agreed. "But mind, Sam, you're committed now. No turning back, no matter what you hear."


In truth, some of the lad's adventures did raise the hair on the back of Sam's neck, in particular the ones that involved slimy or legless reptiles and unsuspecting nannies' beds, and raised his sympathies for Pippin's parents to ever higher heights. Not that he had anything against frogs, salamanders or snakes in their proper place, but he wasn't particularly keen on sharing a bed, shower or bath with them.


But Frodo related Pippin's misdeeds so vividly and with such dry humour that Sam found himself laughing despite himself. In this manner, the miles flew by until at last they exited the motorway. They drove along quiet country lanes, and then, in the glow of the Rolls's headlamps, Sam saw a large wooden sign by the side of the road that said in yellow letters on green, 'Welcome to Hobbiton, Pop. 6,024'.


"We're nearly there, Sam."


Sam sat up straighter, peering eagerly through the windscreen. By now it was quite dark, but he could make out the liquid gleam of water, and said, "Is that a river?"


"Yes, we call it the Water. I'm sorry it's too dark for you to see much, and I don't know if there will be time for you to explore the village on this visit. But you'll have a wonderful view of the countryside from Bag End, at any rate."


"That's all right," Sam said stoutly. "I'm not here to gallivant around the village, after all, but to take care of Master Pippin." He wondered what Frodo meant by 'on this visit'. That implied Sam would be visiting again, although he couldn't see how or why.


The Rolls turned onto a rustic stone bridge that spanned the river, then continued along a winding lane that gradually climbed higher until at length Frodo pulled up in a cobblestone courtyard and parked between a dashing blue E type Jaguar and an elderly green Morris Minor.


"And here we are at last," Frodo said, shutting off the engine, and added with a smile, "Welcome to Bag End, Sam."


“Thank you, Frodo.” Sam smiled shyly back. It didn’t matter that he was here to work. What mattered was the trust that Frodo’s invitation implied, and the warm sincerity in Frodo’s voice and expression that made Sam feel truly welcomed to his home.


“But let’s not sit here like two bumps on a log," Frodo continued briskly, unfastening his seat belt. "I rang Mrs. Rumble this morning to let her know when to expect us, and if I know her, she'll have a meal waiting for us even though I told her we'd stop on the way to eat dinner. She is convinced that I have been wasting away in the wilds of Long Cleeve without her to look after me.”


Sam unfastened his own seat belt and climbed out of the car. The night air felt cool and pleasant, and smelled wonderfully of lavender and lilac and roses. Frodo had been right about the view, Sam thought as he gazed about him. He could see twinkling lights in the village below, the faint gleam of the Water wending past it, and twin pinpricks of yellow from the headlamps of cars moving along the distant motorway. The sky above was strewn with stars, and it was altogether an enchanting prospect, one he was eager to see by the light of day.


Sometimes Sam almost forgot what it was like to live in the country, having grown accustomed to city life, but the contrast between the noisy bustle of Long Cleeve and the serene peace of the Hobbiton night reminded him anew of what his heart truly craved.


Frodo went around to the back of the Rolls and opened the boot. He removed Sam’s valise and set it down, then reached for his own much larger suitcase, lifting it with an ease that belied his slender physique. “Ready, Sam?” he asked, after shutting the boot.


Sam wondered if he ought to offer to carry Frodo's suitcase, but decided against it, a mental image of those fine nostrils thinning when he tried it on with dinner popping into his mind. So he only nodded and picked up his case then followed Frodo along a curving flagstone walk. Chamomile growing in the gaps between the flags released its sweet scent where his footsteps bruised it. Small copper mushroom-shaped path lights lined the walk on either side, and floodlights discreetly placed amongst the shrubbery softly illumined the outside of the smial and shone on a long line of leaded windows, whose number hinted at the extent of the smial. Bag End appeared to occupy the whole of the large hill, and Sam was boggled by its sheer size.


The path ended at a set of shallow stone steps that mounted to a porch whose wooden pillars were covered in flowering white clematis. Frodo stepped up onto the porch, into the circle of light cast by a brass lantern hanging from the roof, but before he reached the green-painted front door, the brass knob in the centre turned and the door swung inward.


“Mr. Frodo, bless you, you’re back! Oh, but I am glad to see you, sir, that I am.” Framed in the round doorway stood a grey-haired and rather stout hobbit with a broad apple-cheeked face that was fairly beaming. She was clad in a green woollen dress with a cream lace collar, and a silver brooch in the shape of a cat was pinned to the pristine white apron covering her ample bosom.


“And I you, Mrs. Rumble, very glad indeed.” Frodo set down his case inside the door, and embraced Mrs. Rumble, bussing her soundly on both cheeks. He drew back and gestured to Sam to come inside. “Mrs. Rumble, this is Sam Gamgee, about whom I told you. He is the fortunate hobbit who gets to care for Pippin whilst my uncle and aunt are away.”


The secret fears Sam had harboured that Frodo’s housekeeper would prove to be a stiff, prim and proper martinet were immediately laid to rest. Mrs. Rumble smiled at him with genuine warmth and offered him her hand, saying, “You're very welcome, I'm sure, Mr. Gamgee. And don't you go believing the tales Mr. Frodo's told you about Master Pippin. He's a dear lad, only a trifle high-spirited.”


Sam repressed a smile at her defence of the 'dear lad' who, if even a fraction of what Frodo had told him were true, appeared capable of turning even the staunchest hobbit's hair snow white.


“I'll keep that in mind, ma'am. But please, just plain 'Sam' will do fine,” he replied, shaking her hand.


“Where are my uncle and aunt?" Frodo asked.


"Thain Paladin and Lady Eglantine are in the parlour," Mrs. Rumble replied.


Thain Paladin and Lady Eglantine? Sam was startled. He'd had no idea Pippin's parents were titled.


"Tell them we'll join them shortly, will you please? I'll show Sam to his room first so he can set down his case."


"Now Mr. Frodo, I can do that," said Mrs. Rumble indignantly, clearly believing it was beneath her employer's dignity. "You go along to the parlour, sir, and I'll bring in tea and sandwiches for you. I know you said you'd eat on the way, but after three weeks in foreign parts I'm sure you can do with some feeding up, and no doubt Sam is peckish, too."


Frodo glanced at Sam and winked ever so slightly, as if to say, 'What did I tell you?' It gave Sam an undoubted thrill, to be sharing a private joke with Frodo.


"Dear Mrs. Rumble, I am perfectly fit to show Sam to his room," Frodo replied. "We shan't be long, I promise; a cup of your excellent tea and several of your even more excellent sandwiches are precisely what this particular doctor would have prescribed for us if he had thought of it. But as always, you are one step ahead of me." Frodo gave her his most charming smile, and led Sam away.


The manoeuvre was accomplished with the same smoothness and skill with which Frodo performed surgery, and left Sam rather in awe - but glad, too, that he wasn't the only one Frodo so effortlessly managed. The eminent consultant was used to getting his way, that was plain, both in and out of the operating theatre.


Sam tried not to gawk like a tourist whilst he trailed after Frodo through the smial, but it was very hard. He'd expected Bag End to be beautiful, but expectation paled before reality as he trod across a gleaming parquet floor scattered with jewel-bright rugs. Sconces and chandeliers cunningly wrought in the shape of entwining branches and vines lit their way. Inlaid side tables with gracefully curved legs held porcelain and crystal vases filled with artfully arranged bouquets of fresh-cut spring flowers. Ancient maps, botanical prints, and oil portraits of what appeared to be long gone Baggins ancestors hung in gilt frames on the wainscoted walls.


There was nothing in the least ostentatious about the decor, but Bag End exuded an aura very much like The Fauntling had. Everything was of the finest and in the most exquisite of taste. Classy, that was the word, Sam decided. He was certain that if he ran his finger along any surface, it would not pick up so much as a speck of dust. Unlike many holes Sam had been in where must and damp pervaded, the air here smelled fresh and clean, with a hint of lemon oil from the polish that lent the wood wainscoting a soft patina. Mrs. Rumble knew her work and did it well, and Sam wasn't surprised, for Frodo, as he well knew from the operating theatre, would demand and expect nothing less. And Sam very much approved, for a hole like Bag End deserved to be cared for like the treasure it was, and not only maintained and preserved, but loved and cherished, too.


Frodo led him past numerous doors, some open and some closed, pointing out the parlour, the dining room and the study to their left, and an enormous pantry on the right.


"I'll give you the full tour tomorrow, but for now the cook's version will have to suffice," he said.


But a curious Sam got glimpses enough to tell him that beauty, comfort and exquisite taste prevailed throughout the smial. It was also clear that Bag End was even larger than it appeared from the outside, for Frodo told him that it extended far back into the hill.


"I'm not sure I've discovered all its secrets," Frodo laughed. "Perhaps some of Burglar Bilbo's treasure is still buried in a hidden tunnel. Various of my relations, the younger generation that is, are convinced of it; I've had to rescue a few of the more adventuresome ones who went off exploring and got themselves muddled up. Not that I didn't do a fair bit of exploring myself when I was a child, of course, and needed Bilbo to show me the way back a time or two."


"Have you had to rescue Pippin?" Sam asked, wisely thinking ahead.


"Thankfully no. But then, he's like a cat that lands on its feet no matter which way it falls. I've had to clean him up once or twice, for the distant cellars do tend to get rather dusty and cobwebby, despite Mrs. Rumble's best efforts, but he always finds his own way back. Speaking of which..."


Frodo came to a halt, and raised a forefinger to his lips, indicating a need for quiet. He turned the shiny brass knob on a door to their left and pushed; the door swung silently inward on well-oiled hinges. Frodo felt for a light switch on the right and flipped it, and then he gestured for Sam to go inside. He stepped in after Sam and shut the door partway.


"Pippin is sleeping in the bedroom across the hall," Frodo said softly. "Hence the need for quiet. We don't want to wake him." Sam nodded his understanding. "You'll be sleeping in here, Sam. It's not the largest or grandest of the spare bedrooms, but you'll be at hand in case Pippin should need you during the night. And the windows overlook the garden, which should please you, I think." A reminiscent smile lit his expressive face. "As a matter of fact, this was my room from the time I first came to live at Bag End until my Uncle Bilbo left. I do hope you'll be comfortable here." As he added this last, Frodo sounded, to Sam's ears, almost anxious, as if he honestly feared that Sam would find the accommodations somehow lacking - an almost laughable fear, if he could know it.


But Sam was touched, not only at the idea of staying in the bedroom that had once been Frodo's, but because it clearly mattered to Frodo that Sam be comfortable during his stay. It said a lot about the kind of hobbit Frodo Baggins was that he was concerned with Sam's personal comfort. After all, Sam was here in his capacity as a nurse, not as a guest.


"This will suit me right fine, Frodo," Sam said, thinking with some amusement that if Frodo could see Sam's shabby, cramped bedroom in the hole he shared with Tom, Jolly, Nick and Milo, his worries would be instantly allayed.


"Good. Good." Frodo smiled in evident relief. "Well, when you're ready, come along to the parlour. If you want to wash up first, the bathroom is through there." He pointed to a door opening off one end of the bedroom. "You won't have to share it with anyone, so make yourself at home."


"I'll do that, thank you," replied Sam, who had never before in his life not had to share a bathroom with another hobbit.


From time to time Sam had observed a curious expression on Frodo's face, one that he couldn't decipher, such as when he'd been listening to Sam tell Sancho Proudfoot the story of Bard and the dragon Smaug. He wore that same expression now as he quietly said, "Sam, I'm very glad you're here." He hesitated, as if about to say more, but then abruptly and without another word went away.


The room felt oddly empty without his presence. But Sam shook off the sensation and lifted his valise onto the end of the double bed, a sturdy oak four-poster with carved acorn finials, sporting a plump down-filled quilt with a muted green and gold floral pattern cover and several equally plump pillows with matching slipcases piled against the headboard.


But he didn't immediately unzip the valise. Instead he took a moment to gaze around him, letting every bit of the wonder he'd been restraining take hold. The room was in truth not all that much larger than his own bedroom at Long Cleeve. But there all comparison ended.


The room seemed almost a window into Frodo's soul, for by his own admission the smial boasted larger and grander rooms, but this was the one that he had chosen for his own when he came to live at Bag End. And Sam could understand why. It was a room to dream in, he thought. A room in which one could imagine that all one's dearest wishes were about to come true. Cozy and warm, a restful retreat from the world.


The stone fireplace was laid ready to light, with a tidy stack of extra logs and a wicker basket filled with kindling and pine cones to one side. An antique firescreen in the shape of a peacock with tail feathers outspread covered the firebox. A comfortable looking armchair was angled toward the fireplace, and looked the perfect spot to curl up with a cup of tea and a book taken from the built-in shelves along one wall, or relax and listen to some of the record albums piled beside a turntable on the dresser. Sam had a sudden mental image of a young Frodo Baggins doing exactly that, whilst rain beat against the leaded panes, and a fire crackled cheerfully on the hearth.


But tempting as it was to linger over that enchanting vision, and perhaps imagine himself into it, Sam resolutely put it by for later and instead unzipped his case. He took his few clothes out and set them in an empty drawer in the dresser. The drawer liner smelled faintly of lavender, a quaint scent, yet entirely in keeping with the sense Bag End gave him of a place alive in the modern world whilst still retaining traces of its storied past. It stirred in him the same inchoate feeling he got when he read books or watched television programs about the Elves, immortal beings long gone from Middle-earth who had left behind them so much of enduring beauty in their art and architecture, their language and literature. Such stories had always held a strong appeal for him, and his sensitive nature responded to beauty as a blossoming flower did to the sun, unfurling its petals the better to absorb its radiant warmth. And Bag End, like its master, was beauty incarnate.


Oh, but I could be happy here, Sam thought wistfully, shutting the drawer. He got his toiletry kit and went into the bathroom, like the bedroom not large but perfectly appointed. He washed his face and hands, dried them on a fluffy blue hand towel, and tidied his unruly curls with a comb. He stared at his reflection in the mirror above the sink, comparing it with Frodo's Elven fair countenance. It was not an inspiring comparison. "Fool," he told his reflection. "Now go along to the parlour and meet the grand lord and lady whose son you're being paid to care for."


Sam wasn't particularly intimidated at the idea of meeting Thain Paladin and Lady Eglantine Took, for it wasn't in his nature; but as he retraced his footsteps to the parlour, he hoped that they would take to him and feel confident about leaving their son in his care.


As it turned out, he had no cause to worry. The instant Sam entered the parlour, Frodo was there, and he drew him in with a reassuring smile and introduced him to his uncle and aunt, who rose with alacrity from the sofa in front of the fireplace and came to meet him.


The Tooks were older than Sam had imagined they would be, given Pippin's age, but Lady Eglantine Took was still a vibrant beauty, unusually tall and fair-haired, clad in a rose pink dress of some soft, clingy fabric that became her willowy figure to perfection, cinched around her trim waist by a wide grey leather belt. A rose and grey pattern silk scarf was artfully draped around her shoulders, and the stones that winked at her ear lobes and on her wrists and fingers were, Sam was certain, real gemstones and their settings fashioned from rare and costly mithril.


Thain Paladin was half a head shorter than his wife, rather portly, and wearing corduroy slacks and a venerable tweed jacket with worn leather elbow patches and pockets that were rather sagging. But he was holding in his left hand the most magnificent pipe Sam had ever seen, with a long curving stem that reached nearly to his hairy toes and a burled walnut bowl that was a work of art in itself.


They welcomed him warmly, and Lady Eglantine said, taking his hand between her own slender fingers, "We are so very fortunate that you agreed to come and keep an eye on Pippin, Sam. Frodo has told us what an accomplished nurse you are and how good you are with children."


"I don't know about that, my lady," Sam replied, blushing a little. "But I like children, and they like me back, seemingly."


"I suspect you are being far too modest, but I know you are being far too formal. Neither my husband nor I like to stand on ceremony, Sam. So if it's all right with you, we'd prefer that you call us simply Paladin and Tina." She smiled at him, and her eyes, emerald green and slightly elongated like a cat's, held nothing but sincerity and kindness.


Sam wondered what his dad would have to say if he knew his son was on a first name basis with members of the gentry. Probably that Sam was getting above himself and aping his betters. But then, his dad didn't hold with what he called that 'newfangled equality nonsense'. As far as he was concerned, a hobbit should know his place and stay there. Ham Gamgee was proud of his son's career as a nurse, and of the fact that Sam was the first Gamgee to graduate from university (with honours to boot), but he'd been heard to say more than once that he hoped no harm would come of it.


But Sam was not of his father's generation, and when it came down to it, the hospital was a great leveller. Class distinctions made no difference when a child was sick. Parents were parents; rich or poor, they loved their children, and Sam treated them all alike. So he readily agreed to her request, deciding that if it wasn't going to bother her or her husband, it wasn't going to bother him.


"That will be fine with me," he said.


"Wonderful," she replied. "And now I suppose we should discuss your duties, since Paladin and I will be leaving shortly. Pippin is recovering very well from his surgery, and will be fit to return to school in another week or so, but right now he needs to take things slowly and not tire himself out. Of course, the better he feels, the less... amenable he is to taking things slowly." A rueful smile touched her lips. "We don't expect miracles, Sam. I'm sure Frodo has told you that our son is a trifle energetic. But if you do your best to keep him from overdoing it, that's all we can ask."


"I will, my - that is, Tina," Sam promised, and hoped that his best would be good enough. "What sort of schedule is Pippin on? When does he get up and what time does he usually nap?"


They sat and chatted for a while about Pippin's schedule and needs, and it became clear to Sam that he would have little actual nursing to do, at least by his standards. No medications were to be given save a child's aspirin for discomfort, and then only if it seemed necessary, and no wound care save to check the incision site several times a day. It seemed that indeed his main task would be to keep the lad out of mischief - assuming he could.


Paladin said, "If anything does come up, Frodo is intimately familiar with Pippin's case. He has been in regular contact with the surgeon, Mr. Chubb of the Gerontius Children's Hospital in Tuckborough, and of course we have the utmost confidence in him."


"Indeed, I don't know what we would have done without you, Frodo dear," Tina added emotionally, but Frodo only smiled and shook his head as if disputing her claim. She turned to Sam. "Pippin is our youngest, you see, and came as rather a surprise. His three sisters are considerably older. Pearl, our oldest, is newly married, Pimpernel is at university and Pervinca is in boarding school. I've been accused of spoiling Pippin," she cast a laughing glance at her husband, "but I'm not the only one. He's very special to all of us - a late in life gift, you might say."


"That he most definitely is," agreed Paladin fondly. "But now," he added, getting to his feet, "I fear we must be on our way, Tina dear. It's getting late."


"I'll see you out," said Frodo, rising from his chair, too.


Paladin and Tina took their leave of Sam, expressing their gratitude to him once more and promising to ring up next day to see how he and Pippin were getting on. When they'd gone, Sam got up and wandered around the parlour, done up in shades of rose and gold with walls painted the palest green. It was a fashionably appointed room, and yet clearly meant to be used and lived in, unlike his Aunt May's parlour, where the sofa and chairs were encased in heavy clear plastic that crackled whenever one shifted on the cushions, and was slippery and uncomfortable to sit on.


Never in his entire life had Sam been inside a hole that combined elegance with comfort as this one did, and it came to him that he'd already tumbled headlong into love with Bag End, as he'd tumbled headlong into love with its owner practically at first glance. What would it be like, to be married to Frodo Baggins and live here with him? To be intimately familiar with this beautiful smial and call it his home? Oh, but it would be his dearest wish come true, Sam thought, if such wishes were for the likes of him.


Sam's meandering path led him back to the fireplace with its mantel of dove grey and rose marble that was decorated with carved flowers at the corners. Above the mantel hung two small oil portraits in oval gilt frames. One was of a male hobbit, handsome, robust and smiling, and the other was of a female hobbit with pale skin, dark curls and serene sky-blue eyes. She had an ethereal, almost other-worldly, quality about her, and Sam knew at once that this must be Frodo's mother.


"That would be poor dear Mistress Primula," said a voice, and Sam, startled, turned around to see Mrs. Rumble standing in the parlour doorway with a large silver tray held between her hands. "Mr. Frodo's mother. And Mr. Drogo beside her. They died in a boating accident when Mr. Frodo was only twelve years old."


Her eyes suspiciously bright, Mrs. Rumble advanced into the room. Sam hurried over, and without giving her a chance to protest, took the tray from her. "Frodo told me a little about it," he said. "It must have been cruel hard on him."


"It was." She dabbed at her eyes with the hem of her apron. "Mr. Bilbo never did a kinder thing than when he adopted Mr. Frodo and brought him home to Bag End. I'd not been here long myself, having taken over the housekeeping duties the year before, but I recall that day like it were yesterday. I'll not deny I had my doubts when Mr. Bilbo told me he was adopting a child, him being a bachelor and all, but the instant I set eyes on Mr. Frodo, my doubts went away. Mr. Bilbo might have had his peculiarities, as some have called them, but he knew quality when he saw it."


As did Sam, and he said, "I've never worked with a better surgeon than Frodo, and that's a fact. We'll be right sorry to lose him." Which was an understatement, if ever there were one, Sam thought.


Mrs. Rumble gave Sam an approving look. "I'm never comfortable in my mind when Mr. Frodo goes off consulting, for he don't take care of himself as he ought. But he's found a good friend in you, Sam, that's plain, and I'll rest easy now until he's home again."


Sam wanted to be a good friend to Frodo, that was true, and it wasn't too much of a stretch to say that he'd follow him to the moon and back if he asked. But Frodo wasn't likely to ask, and if ever a hobbit liked to have his own way, and brooked no interference, it was Frodo Baggins.


But Sam only said, "I'm glad," and then added, "Where would you like the tray, Mrs. Rumble?"


He set it down where she indicated, on the low tea table in front of the sofa. His stomach gave an impatient growl as he did, for there was a platter of sandwiches made with thick slices of whole grain bread bulging with roast beef or ham and cheese, as well as a plate of assorted iced biscuits and a large pot of tea under a colorful felted cosy.


"This looks a treat," he said.


"It does indeed," said Frodo, returned from seeing his uncle and aunt off. "You, Mrs. Rumble, are a pearl above price."


"Don't you go wasting your flattery on me, Mr. Frodo," the pearl above price said, but she was smiling.


"It would be a waste if I intended simply to flatter you, but as it happens, I mean every word," Frodo replied, his eyes twinkling.


"Pish-tosh, and now if you're done with your foolishness, sir, I'll be off home." Mrs. Rumble added to Sam, "I know better than to tell Mr. Frodo to leave everything for the morning. He'll do the washing up whatever I say, and him a surgeon and all." It was clear that this, too, she considered beneath Frodo's dignity.


"How other surgeons feel on the matter I have no idea, but this one isn't afraid to wash a few pots, pans and plates." Frodo swooped in and gave her a hug. "Safe home, dearest Mrs. Rumble."


After she'd gone, Frodo sat down on the sofa next to Sam. "I'll be mother," he said, plucking the cosy from a whimsical beehive tea pot. "Milk and honey?"


"Please," Sam said.


"Help yourself to a sandwich, Sam. Don't be shy."


Sam picked up a china plate and set a roast beef sandwich on it. In fact, he felt shy and very uncertain. Frodo was sitting closer to Sam than he ever had, without the width of a dining table or the Rolls's console dividing them. He was dressed more casually than Sam was accustomed to seeing him, too, in a deep blue cable knit pullover and grey slacks, and it had the effect of making him appear more youthful than ever.


Oh, but he was a rare beauty, thought Sam, stealing glances at that perfect face as Frodo prepared their tea. His profile was as flawless as if it were carved from the finest Gondorian stone: the brow wide and smooth, the nose straight, the upper lip sweetly curved, the bottom full and ripe, the chin gently rounded but without a trace of weakness. And yet, Frodo was no being carved from cold stone, but a living hobbit, whose every glance caused Sam's stomach to drop precipitously, as if he were riding the roller coaster at the Long Cleeve amusement park.


It happened again when Frodo shot Sam a sidelong look and said, "You don't have to wait on me, you know."


Truthfully Sam's appetite wasn't for roast beef right then. Frodo was food for the eyes and more than filling enough to satisfy him. But he obediently took a bite of his sandwich, which was every bit as delicious as it appeared.


"How is it?" Frodo asked, placing a tea cup in front of Sam.


"Wonderful," replied Sam.


Frodo chose a ham and cheese sandwich and after the first bite he sighed happily. "Long Cleeve has much to recommend it, but I've yet to find bread the equal of what the bakery in Hobbiton produces. Although," he added, "Long Cleeve does have some of the best pastries I've ever tasted, thanks to a certain charge nurse I know. If you grow tired of nursing, Sam, you can always make a living as a baker."


"To be honest, I did think about it, before I settled on training for a nurse," Sam said, for once not put to the blush by Frodo's praise. "I could have 'prenticed with one of the bakeries in town, but it didn't seem right for me somehow. When it comes down to it, I reckon I'd rather bake things because I want to than because I have to, if you understand me."


Frodo nodded slowly. "I do understand you." He tipped his head to one side and regarded Sam thoughtfully. "You are quite an extraordinary hobbit, Samwise Gamgee. I hope you know that."


Now Sam was blushing. "That's kind of you to say, though it's not true, not by a long road."


"Then we shall have to agree to disagree on this particular point, I fear." Frodo settled back with his plate balanced on his tummy and stretched his toes out toward the fire. "We should enjoy the peace and tranquility whilst we can. It may be short-lived."


Sam chuckled, but truthfully, he was feeling far too content at that moment to worry about the morrow and whatever mischief Pippin Took might bring with it. But in the event, it wasn't Pippin who brought the mischief. It would come from another source altogether.


~*~


When they'd devoured all the sandwiches, drained the teapot and eaten every last crumb of the biscuits, Frodo bundled the empty plates and cups back onto the tray and carried everything into the kitchen. Sam went with him, not daring to suggest that he should do the carrying, though the offer hovered on his lips the entire way.


But when Sam stepped into the kitchen, he was so gobsmacked that every thought flew out of his brain except that here was his dream kitchen come to life: spacious and homey, yet filled with every modern convenience an ardent hobbit-cook could possibly desire.


Why, a hobbit could cook in this kitchen, thought Sam as he followed Frodo across the charcoal grey stone-flagged floor to a copper sink beneath a deep windowsill filled with clay pots of thriving cooking herbs. Really cook, the way he himself was never able to in the tiny, cramped kitchen in the rented hole.


Frodo set the tray on the counter. "I'll rinse, you put in the dishwasher?" he proposed as he placed the dirty dishes and utensils in one side of the double basin. He leaned to his left, opened the dishwasher, and pulled out the bottom rack.


"All right," Sam said, and then confessed, "I've never been in a hole with a dishwasher before." It seemed the height of luxury to him.


"I bought it last year, and though she was loathe to use it at first, Mrs. Rumble has been quite won over by it, I'm happy to say." Frodo pushed his sleeves up to his elbows, removed his gold wristwatch and set it on the windowsill, then turned on the taps and adjusted the water temperature. He rinsed a plate under the stream of water and handed it to Sam, who placed it in the bottom rack. "I try to ease her work load where and when I can manage it," he continued. "She won't hear of me hiring any full-time help for her, although there is a village girl who comes once a week to assist with the heavy cleaning."


Sam thought that a different type of employer would simply disregard Mrs. Rumble's feelings and do what he liked. "Reckon she's got her pride, Frodo," he observed, taking another dripping plate and setting it in the dishwasher. "It ain't easy, accepting you're slowing down. My old dad is the same."


Frodo nodded and said, "You've hit the nail squarely on the head, Sam. Mrs. Rumble does indeed have her pride. It would be a fine payback for her years of service to force change upon her against her will. But I hope she will come to see the sense of my suggestion in time, mainly because she persists in the notion that such mundane tasks as hoovering or mopping are beneath me, which makes it deucedly difficult for me to pitch in and help out."


In point of fact, Sam's sympathy lay entirely with Mrs. Rumble. It didn't sit right with him either, to watch Frodo use his skilled surgeon's hands in such a manner, but he knew better than to voice his opinion. A slight smile tugged at his lips. Frodo and Mrs. Rumble were cut from the same cloth, seemingly. Stubborn, proud and independent.


"What is that smile for, Sam Gamgee?" Frodo asked, proving once again that little escaped those keen blue eyes.


"Nothing," Sam hastily replied, and decided that a change of topic was definitely indicated. "Is there any convenience you haven't bought for Mrs. Rumble? Seems to be one of everything so far as I can see."


The expressive lift of one gracefully arched eyebrow told Sam that his companion wasn't fooled by the change of topic, but Frodo only said, sounding amused, "At least one of everything. Although it's Bilbo who is mainly responsible, not me. He was an enthusiastic cook, and he adored gadgets. Any new utensil or appliance that came on the market he invariably bought, often multiple times, although his forgetfulness has turned out to be an excellent source of mathoms for my relations. I've handed out more automated apple peelers, burnt cream torches, cherry pitters, cake levellers, and milk frothers on my birthday than you can possibly imagine."


Amusement or no, Sam thought he detected a hint of wistfulness in Frodo's voice. "You must miss him."


Frodo smiled crookedly. "I do. Life was certainly never dull when Bilbo was about. Of course, I went off to university and then medical school, and my consulting work frequently takes me away from home. But still, simply knowing that Bilbo was here, entertaining a gaggle of Dwarves or experimenting with chemicals in one of the tunnels and nearly blowing the smial sky high, was a comfort."


"A comfort?" Sam repeated dubiously. "He sounds a mite dangerous to be around, if you don't mind me saying."


The smile turned into a laugh. "A little, perhaps, but no kinder-hearted hobbit exists in all Middle-earth than Bilbo." Frodo took a linen dish-towel from a hook and gave it to Sam. "For drying the tea cups and saucers," he explained. "Mrs. Rumble doesn't approve of putting them in the dishwasher. But to return to Bilbo, he told me when he left that it was for good, but under," there was a fractional hesitation, "certain special circumstances he might be persuaded to change his mind and return for a visit." Frodo handed Sam a tea cup to dry. "I know you'd like him very much, Sam, and he most definitely would like you."


Which once more seemed to imply that Sam would be returning to Bag End at some time in the future. But Sam didn't see how or why. Frodo's sojourn at Northfarthing General would end in a week, after which they would have no further occasion to meet. Which was a thought so unutterably depressing that Sam immediately banished it. "I reckon that would be a fine thing for you if he did come home," he commented.


"A very fine thing indeed," agreed Frodo blandly, but a slight smile played about his lips, as if he were secretly amused.


"And what is that smile for, Frodo Baggins?" Sam challenged, thinking it was time to prove that he was observant, too.


Frodo's response was an unsatisfactory and provocative, "Perhaps I'll tell you one day." And then from somewhere inside the smial a clock began to strike the hour, and he added, with a glance at his wristwatch on the windowsill, "Goodness, I had no idea it was so late. We'd better finish up and get to bed, Sam."


Sam 'accidentally' dropped the dish towel and bent to pick it up, hoping that any redness in his cheeks would be attributed to his stooping. For the image that had come to his mind at Frodo's words was enough to put any respectable hobbit to the blush.


~*~


Sam neatly folded his clothes and set them in the dresser drawer. Then he pulled on a pair of flannel pajamas and climbed into bed. And sighed as he sank into the thickest, most comfortable mattress it had ever been his privilege to lie upon. Like the feather tick, the pillows, too, were goose down, and the sheets were silky-soft and smelled sunshine fresh, as if they'd just been taken off the clothesline.


He switched off the lamp on the bedside table and lay there for a time watching the leaping flames behind the peacock fireguard, feeling drowsy and content. He'd lit the fire not because the room was chilly, but simply for the sheer pleasure the crackle and pop and the fragrant scent of real pine and apple-wood burning gave him. There was nothing like a real wood fire, when it came down to it. Gas burning ones simply didn't compare. He yawned hugely, but resisted the urge to shut his eyes. Frodo's hints to the contrary, Sam very much doubted he would ever have the opportunity to visit Bag End again, and it seemed a shame to waste any time in sleep.


It was a right funny old world, he mused, hooking an arm behind his head and pursing his lips. Who would ever have imagined him, Sam Gamgee, staying in a hole like this? He sighed again, but it was a very different kind of sigh this time. The truth was, he was a greedy beggar, and it weren't enough, even this. But then, how could he help but want more under the circumstances?


After leaving the kitchen, he'd gone with Frodo to check on Pippin. The lad, who looked harmless as a baby lamb with his tousled golden curls and sleep-flushed cheeks, had been sleeping soundly with an arm wrapped around a rather battered fluffy bear, and they hadn't lingered but crept softly away.


In the hallway, they'd stood outside Sam's door, not making any move to part, but lingering as if at some unspoken command. A queer breathlessness had come over Sam as he gazed into Frodo's eyes, a shadowed mystery holding him captive more surely than any wizard's spell. He'd thought a repeat of the never-to-be-forgotten kiss was about to happen, and his heart had thundered in his chest so loudly that he wondered if Frodo could hear it. But Frodo had only said quietly, "Good-night, Sam. Sleep well," and walked away, leaving Sam to wonder if his imagination had run off with him again.


No doubt it had, Sam now decided. If wishes were ponies, beggars would ride, as the saying went. If he were wise, he would put such foolish notions from his mind, once and for all.


But he fell asleep, as he so often did now, recalling the softness of Frodo's warm lips pressed to his own, and fervently wishing he could experience it again.


~*~


When Sam awoke, a pair of vivid emerald green eyes was fixed on him with the unblinking intensity of an owl. The eyes belonged to a slight hobbit-child clad in red plaid pajamas who was sitting cross-legged on the end of the bed. The lad had a thin face and a rather pointy nose, but even had Sam not had a look at his charge last night, he would have recognised him at once, for like Frodo, Pippin Took had his mother's eyes.


A quick glance at the alarm clock on the bedside table showed that it was shortly after five-thirty in the morning. Earlier than Pippin was used to get up, according to his parents, and had Sam uneasily recalling Frodo's tales of frogs, snakes, spiders and other critters finding their way into the blankets of Pippin's nannies' beds.


He sat cautiously up, relieved that nothing slithered, jumped or bit as he did, and said, "Good morning. You must be Master Pippin Took. I'm Sam Gamgee, and right pleased to meet you."


Pippin continued to regard him with that unblinking stare for a few more seconds and then announced rather haughtily, "I don't need a nurse."


"I reckon you don't," agreed Sam in mild tones.


This calmly uttered statement appeared to take the wind out of Pippin's sails. "I don't?"


"I shouldn't think so. Your parents told me you're nearly well again."


"If that's so, then why are you here?" Pippin demanded, apparently not mollified and still suspicious.


Sam promptly replied, "Because mums and dads are champion worriers, that's why." He had given some thought to how he would handle Pippin's expected objection to his presence in the smial.


"Yes!" agreed Pippin with feeling. "I do wish they wouldn't fuss so."


"It don't seem like fussing to them, I reckon, but only doing their job, like," observed Sam. "And since we don't want them to think they're falling down on the job, it's up to us to humour them and pretend to go along."


"We-ell." Pippin scrunched up his nose as he considered Sam's suggestion. "I guess we might do that," he cautiously allowed.


"Makes sense to me. And only the two of us will know the truth, that I'm not here to be your nurse at all, but to be your friend. It'll be a secret, like." Sam held out his hand. "How about we shake on it? Make it official, as you might say."


"All right." Pippin got to his knees and leaned forward, placing his small hand in Sam's much larger one. Solemnly they shook, and then Pippin asked, "Would you like to see my scar?" Without waiting for an answer, he pulled up his pajama top with one hand and with the other pulled down the pajama bottom so that a reddish scar a few inches long on the lower right of his tummy was revealed. "Isn't it gruesome?" he said with relish.


"Very gruesome, and that's a fact," agreed Sam, dutifully admiring the scar, which his trained nurse's eye could see was in fact healing beautifully.


"Cousin Frodo has a scar, too, from when he had his 'ppendix out, but he says his scar is gnarly because it didn't heal properly. I wish my scar was gnarly," Pippin said with a regretful sigh. "And I wish he'd been the one who got to cut me open."


"Doctors don't usually like to, err, cut open their own family," said Sam, amused.


"That's what Papa said. He said it wouldn't have been proper, although I don't see why." A thought seemed to strike him then, and he asked, "Have you ever watched someone be cut open?"


Sam saw an opportunity here to raise his stock with Pippin, who appeared to have rather a ghoulish interest in the topic of cutting hobbits open. "All the time. I'm a paediatric surgical nurse, you see. I've even helped Frodo cut a few hobbits open - and put them back together again, of course."


"Ohh, you have?" breathed Pippin, clearly impressed.


Deciding that it would be best to quit whilst he was ahead, before Pippin demanded a blow by blow accounting of the cutting open, Sam chose what he was fairly certain would be a sure-fire diversion. "I have indeed, and I can tell you more about it later. But what do you say to having some breakfast first? I don't know about you, but I'm in the mood for pancakes."


"Yes, please," said Pippin, bouncing on his knees. "I'm starving. And I know where Mrs. Rumble keeps the chocolate chips."


"Chocolate chip pancakes it is then." Sam threw back the covers and got out of bed.


~*~


After changing into shirt, slacks and jumper, Sam led Pippin off to the kitchen, where he filled the electric tea kettle and turned it on before setting about gathering the makings for the pancakes. Pippin evidently had been in the Bag End kitchen enough times to know where more than just the chocolate chips were stored. In short order, the various necessary ingredients were found, and set to beating in a large stand mixer, a far cry from the ancient hand-held mixer Sam had at home, with its wire whisks that had a habit of falling out at random moments.


When the batter was ready, Sam gave Pippin the whisks to lick clean, as he'd liked to do when he was a lad, and then carried the bowl to the Aga and set it down. He took a wide cast iron frying pan from a rack on the wall, saying, "I'm going to need someone to flip the pancakes, Pippin. What do you say?"


Pippin enthusiastically agreed, and Sam fetched a stool for him to stand on and lifted him onto it. He always found it worked best to let children help out, even if only in a small way, and he doubted there had ever been a more appealing sight than young Pippin Took, kneeling beside him, whilst the tip of his pink tongue protruded from the corner of his mouth as he prepared to flip the pancake with the spatula he clutched in his small fist. It didn't matter that it was a lopsided flip, what mattered was Pippin's beaming smile when he was done.


"Very good job," Sam said approvingly. "I couldn't have done it better myself."


"You're awfully nice, Sam," Pippin said with an expression that would have melted a heart of stone, and Sam's heart was about as far from stone as a heart could be. "I was going to put a spider in your bed whilst you were sleeping," he added in a confiding tone, "but now I'm glad I didn't."


"I reckon the spider is glad, too," said Sam. "I might have squashed the poor thing."


"I never thought about that," Pippin confessed, looking crestfallen.


"Spiders belong in the garden, spinning their webs and catching flies. In fact, we're all better off staying where we belong," said Sam, thinking that if he were wise, he would listen to his own advice. "It's safer that way."


"Is that what the spider said to the unfortunate fly before he ate it?" said an amused voice.


"Cousin Frodo!" Pippin dropped the spatula with a splatter of batter, slid down from the stool, and ran and flung himself at Frodo, who caught him, laughing, and swung him round.


"Hallo, imp," Frodo said, setting him gently on the floor.


"We're making chocolate chip pancakes, and I'm helping," Pippin announced.


Frodo smiled down at his small cousin. "So I see. And if Sam is involved, I know they will be as light as air and melt in your mouth. I do hope there will be enough for this poor old doctor to have some, too." Over Pippin's head Frodo gave Sam a warm smile and said, "Good morning, Sam."


"G-good morning," stuttered Sam, but if Frodo was expecting anything more eloquent, he was doomed to disappointment. Sam was held fast, immobile as an unfortunate fly wrapped in a spider's web, ensnared by the vision of beauty before him.


He had not believed Frodo Baggins could possibly look handsomer than he did in one of his perfectly tailored suits, but he'd been wrong. This Frodo, with his disheveled dark curls, sleep flushed cheeks and eyes bluer than a cloudless summer sky, their colour emphasised by a quilted dressing gown of peacock blue silk with wide black satin cuffs and a black satin belt knotted around his narrow waist, left him utterly gobsmacked.


How long he might have stood there spellbound was anyone's guess, but a thin thread of smoke issuing from the frying pan caught his attention, and Sam realised to his embarrassment that whilst he'd been gawking, the pancake was burning.


"Light as air and melt in your mouth my great-aunt's foot hair," he muttered as he scraped the charred pancake from the frying pan and discarded it. "You're naught but a great pillock, Sam Gamgee."


Thankfully, Pippin was showing off his appendix scar to Frodo, and neither cousin appeared to notice the small cooking disaster. Frodo dutifully examined the scar and then pronounced it to be a 'corker', one of the best he'd ever seen, to Pippin's evident satisfaction.


"Now, my lad," Frodo said, lifting Pippin and returning him to the stool, "I'm going to set the table and make the tea, and you have a job to see through. We don't want any more of these pancakes to burn." Sam choked, and Frodo laughed and flitted away like a brilliant blue butterfly to a glass-fronted cabinet filled with enough china plates to feed an entire army of hobbits.


Before long, the three hobbits were seated at the scrubbed oak kitchen table with a platter of chocolate chip pancakes plus crisp slices of perfectly cooked bacon, a stack of buttered toast, and a pot of tea. In between stuffing alarmingly large forkfuls of butter and syrup drenched pancake into his mouth, Pippin chattered like a magpie to Frodo.


Sam listened with only half an ear to their conversation, partly because much of what Pippin said concerned friends and family unknown to him, but also because he was perfectly content to sit quietly and enjoy the simple pleasures of a shared breakfast in the warm, sunlit kitchen. Watching Frodo's lovely, laughing face across the table, foolish wishes once more crowded Sam's brain, and he imagined that he and Frodo and Pippin were a family, and each morning would find them sitting round the table together like this, with perhaps a few other little 'uns occupying the empty chairs. It didn't matter how often Sam heard his dad's voice in his head calling him a ninnyhammer; he couldn't seem to stop wishing for the moon.


Mrs. Rumble arrived when the mountain of pancakes had been reduced to a mere foothill, mostly by Pippin, who even for a hobbit-child could consume an impressive amount of provender. She gave Sam, whom she plainly, and correctly, credited for the hearty, filling breakfast, an approving look, but when Sam made a move to start clearing the table, Mrs. Rumble forestalled him, making it plain that she would brook no interference with the washing up this time.


"You leave that for me," she said sternly. "Go on about your business, and let me get on with mine."


Frodo meekly allowed her to shoo them out of the kitchen, though Sam thought he was on the verge of laughter, a suspicion that was confirmed when they were out in the hall and he did laugh and say, "One could be forgiven for wondering exactly who is the owner of Bag End sometimes." Then he added, "But she has a point. I have a number of calls to make and then business to attend to in the village later this morning, so I'd best get on with it. I shall likely lunch in town, Sam, but I should be back in time for tea. Afterward I can give you a proper tour of the smial, whilst Pippin is down for his nap."


"Nap?" Pippin said, pouting.


"Yes, nap," replied Frodo firmly.


"But Frodo," he began in a wheedling voice.


"Save your breath to cool your porridge, my lad. I'm afraid your doctor must insist on an afternoon nap." When Pippin looked mulish, Frodo said, "Buck up, Pip. The end is in sight. Next visit you can tear around the smial to your heart's content." He tousled Pippin's golden curls affectionately and said, "Well, I'm off. Enjoy your morning." With a smile and a nod at Sam, he strode briskly away down the hall towards his room.


Sam watched him go with undeniable regret, but he, too, had his duties to attend to and he'd best get on with them.


~*~


The morning passed swiftly, and if Sam hadn't been told otherwise, he'd never have guessed Peregrin Took was the tiny terror who had sent a succession of nannies packing their bags and fleeing. He and Sam got on famously, and any little storm warnings, such as when Sam informed Pippin it was time for his bath and a combative spark lit those cat-like emerald green eyes, were quickly calmed.


It helped that Sam had come forewarned and forearmed. Pippin's attitude about taking a bath turned completely around when Sam presented him with a red and gold rubber dragon that he'd brought. The only problem after that was convincing Pippin to get out of the tub. The lad was reluctant to abandon Smaug's attacks on the hapless rubber duck and other toys bobbing in the water, the ferocity of which resulted in a bathroom floor positively swimming with strawberry bubble bath.


Eventually, however, the water cooled, and Pippin got out and dressed in the clothes Sam had laid out for him, whilst Sam mopped up the floor. Afterward they went outside, where several delightful hours were passed in the garden - though in this case the greater part of the delight belonged to Sam, who could happily have lingered there for the entire day. Frodo had called the Bag End garden lovely, but Sam thought that the grossest of understatements. It was clear that the gardens were the work of many generations, and that the same exquisite taste married to careful planning prevailed as inside the smial.


If Sam had not already tumbled head over heels in love with Bag End, its garden would have completed his fall. Such glimpses as he'd got the previous night had been akin to smelling a delightful dish simmering in a pot; the true splendour could only be appreciated once one was able to taste it, too. And having now had a taste of it, Sam yearned to sample its beauties not only in the late spring but in every season - and for years to come.


Sam was conscious, however, that he was at Bag End for a purpose, and that purpose was not to gratify his own wishes, but to keep a watchful eye on Pippin, who made a beeline for a wooden play set, complete with slide, climbing frame, swings and a sandbox. He informed Sam proudly that Frodo had had built just for his use, a fact which clearly showed the extent of Frodo's affection for his young cousin. But Sam wondered if Frodo had also been preparing for a future wherein his own children made use of the play set.


As Sam was pushing Pippin on a swing - high enough to keep Pippin satisfied and low enough to keep Sam from worrying - a rather dour looking older hobbit with a wheelbarrow emerged from a path in the shrubbery. He paused, gave Sam and Pippin a curt nod, and continued on his way.


"That's Mr. Twofoot," said Pippin in a hushed voice. "He's cranky."


Cranky or no, Sam seized the opportunity to speak to Mr. Twofoot when Pippin tired of the swing and hunkered down in the sandbox with spade, bucket and a collection of assorted miniature Orcs, Elves, wargs, oliphaunts and other creatures. Sam introduced himself, receiving a bare grunt of acknowledgement in return, but Rodger Twofoot's attitude suffered a sea change when Sam expressed his admiration for the garden and asked him several informed questions about his gardening methods.


"Ye'll be knowing a bit about gardening, I see," Mr. Twofoot said approvingly, and in short order was sharing his wisdom on the topics of composting, companion planting, and raised beds, which were, he said with a snort of derision, the latest 'fool craze' in gardening. He had nothing but praise for Frodo, whom he called a "proper master, not one o' them Johnny raws who tries to tell them as know better how they should get on wi' their jobs."


"And ye're a nurse, ye say?" he asked after his peroration wound to a close.


"That's right, at hospital in Long Cleeve. It's where I met Mr. Baggins." Sam didn't feel it would improve his stock with Mr. Twofoot to say 'Frodo'. The gardener reminded Sam very much of his father, a stubborn stickler for the old ways.


Mr. Twofoot wagged his grizzled head and remarked, "Seems a waste of a promising gardener if ye ask me, and I mean to tell Mr. Frodo so."


Recalling what Frodo had said about Mr. Twofoot contemplating retirement, and the dread he felt at finding a replacement for him, a dread that Sam now entirely understood, he rather fervently hoped that Mr. Twofoot wouldn'ttell Frodo so. The thought of Frodo asking him to become his new gardener was depressing in the extreme. The Bag End garden was a magical place indeed, but Sam had no desire to be paid to care for it.


Mrs. Rumble came out on the porch and called to Sam, telling him that she'd prepared luncheon for him and Pippin. Sam took his leave of Mr. Twofoot, and kept Pippin from dashing at full speed into the smial by the simple expedient of offering to give him a pig-a-back ride. The trick with Pippin, he'd learned, was to present him with a tempting alternative to whatever it was he wanted (or didn't want) to do, rather than sling orders about.


"You've a wonderful hand with children," Mrs. Rumble said approvingly to Sam, whilst they waited for Pippin to wash up at the kitchen sink before sitting down to eat. "Mr. Frodo knew what he was about when he asked you to look after Master Pippin. I'll admit I was afraid he might ask-" She stopped, seeming to think better of what she had been about to say. "But that's neither here nor there."


As long as he was the one who had been asked, thought Sam, but nevertheless was left wondering the identity of the hobbit she feared Frodo might have asked instead.


~*~


Deciding that a quieter indoor pursuit was in order after lunch, Sam said that he was in the mood for a board game, and did Pippin know if Frodo had any? "Oh yes," Pippin happily replied, and dragged him off to a closet in the sitting room whose shelves were filled with colourful oblong cardboard boxes.


"What would you like to play?" Sam asked.


For answer, Pippin stood on tiptoe and pointed at a box on a shelf above his reach. Sam fetched it down and they settled comfortably on the thick carpet to play a game of 'Snakes and Ladders'.


Sam set out the board, markers and die, and Pippin pounced like a hunting kitten on the green marker and picked it up. "Green is my favourite," he said. "Merry always picks blue. He says it's the colour of Frodo's eyes. Isn't that silly?"


Sam had been about to pick the blue one himself, and for the very same reason. Instead, flushing slightly, he took the red marker and set it beside Pippin's on the starting square.


It wasn't the first time Pippin had mentioned Merry Brandybuck. Pippin appeared to be very fond of his cousin, who, he told Sam, had visited him several times in hospital and given him the very well-loved fluffy bear that held pride of place on his bed and that he'd named Merry in his honour. Sam had carefully not pumped Pippin for more information, though it would have been easy to do so, for the lad was nothing if not talkative. Even so, Pippin had volunteered enough for Sam to understand that Merry was a frequent visitor to Bag End, and quite close to Frodo. How close was a question that Sam, despite himself, would have given a great deal to know the answer to.


As it happened, there was no necessity for Sam to pump Pippin for information; the child volunteered it unasked. "Merry says he's going to marry Frodo when he comes of age," Pippin added, rolling his eyes in a manner indicative of equal parts disbelief and disgust.


"Does he now?" What does Frodo have to say to that? was the question hovering on his tongue, but he bit it back.


"Yes," Pippin replied. "Can I go first, Sam?"


And with that tantalising, if frustrating, tidbit of information, Sam had to be content. He handed Pippin the die.


They were in the midst of a game of spillikins when Frodo at last returned from the village and came to find them in the parlour. Sam was in the process of a rather delicate and tricky manoeuvre; his hand jerked at the sight of Frodo standing in the doorway, and the stick he'd been attempting to remove from the pile knocked two others awry.


"You're back," Sam said stupidly, and a smile broke out on his face, unstoppable as the rising of the sun.


"So it would appear," Frodo replied, a twinkle in his eyes.


"Frodo," Pippin said in an aggrieved voice, "you're interrupting our game. It's my turn."


"I beg your pardon, Pip." Frodo sketched a brief bow. "But I'm afraid I have to interrupt your game in any case, for Mrs. Rumble asked me to tell you that tea is ready."


"Did she make fairy cakes?" Pippin asked eagerly.


"She did. With sprinkles and chocolate icing."


"Oh goody!" Pippin scrambled to his feet. As he was on the verge of dashing out the door, Frodo fixed him with a stern look and said, "No running, my lad."


"Can I walk fast?" Pippin wanted to know.


Frodo chuckled. "All right, you can walk fast."


And walk fast Pippin did, abandoning the spillikins without a backward glance. He hurried out of the room whilst Sam, grinning, gathered up the wooden sticks and put them back in their box.


"I'm delighted to see that the smial is still in one piece," remarked Frodo, watching him. "I stand by what I said last night, Sam: you are an extraordinary hobbit."


Sam flushed. "There's naught to keeping Pippin out of mischief, Frodo, only knowing how to handle him, like. He's bright as a button and don't take to being talked down to." He picked up the game boxes and returned them to the cupboard, conscious of Frodo's blue eyes on him all the while.


"It's a lesson that various and sundry nanniescould have stood to learn," Frodo remarked ruefully. "And as usual, you are giving yourself far too little credit, but Mrs. Rumble and Rodger Twofoot have both already sung your praises to me, so I'm afraid you can't escape from accepting credit where credit is due. Now come along. If we don't hurry, Pippin will eat all the fairy cakes, and Mrs. Rumble does make the most delicious fairy cakes."


Sam shut the cupboard and obediently moved toward the door. As he did, Frodo stepped to his side and lightly cupped Sam's elbow with one hand. It was a casual yet undeniably intimate gesture, and never in his life had Sam been so aware of anything as he was of that touch, seeming almost to burn, even through the jersey sleeve of Sam's shirt.


He couldn't think of a single thing to say as Frodo steered him out of the parlour and into the hall.


But he didn't have to, for they had gone only a few paces along the hall when a young, attractive hobbit dressed with the sort of trendy elegance that shouted money came round the bend ahead and stopped dead at the sight of them. Sam recognised him at once as the hobbit who had been riding with Frodo in his Rolls that afternoon in Long Cleeve. It was Merry Brandybuck. His grey eyes fastened on Sam's elbow, still held in Frodo's gentle grasp, and something about their expression gave Sam pause.


"Why, Merry," said Frodo, immediately dropping his hand. "This is a surprise. I didn't know you were planning to visit today." He spoke lightly, but Sam, glancing at his face, thought that he was taken off-guard and possibly even disturbed by Merry's unexpected appearance.


"Evidently not," Merry replied shortly. "Since you didn't bother to inform me that you were going to be home this weekend. I only found out by chance, through Pippin. You might have told me, Frodo."


Frodo raised his eyebrows at his accusatory tone, but said mildly, "I might have, had I not known that I would be preoccupied with business. I've been down in the village most of the day and only just returned, as it happens." He smiled with an obvious effort and said, "But I am forgetting my manners. Merry, I'd like to introduce you to Samwise Gamgee, a nurse at the Long Cleeve hospital. Uncle Paladin and Aunt Tina hired him to take care of Pippin whilst they're away. Sam, this is my cousin, Merry Brandybuck."


"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Brandybuck," said Sam, offering his hand and trying in fact to feel pleased when it was evident that Merry Brandybuck wished him at Harad - or someplace even further away.


Merry stared at Sam's extended hand as if it were an unpleasantly slimy object before giving it the briefest of shakes and dropping it, after which he stepped close to Frodo and slipped his arm through his cousin's, effectively cutting Sam out.


"Frodo, did you hear that Fatty bought a new car?" said Merry, leading him away so that Sam was perforce left to trail in their wake. "He took me for a spin in it yesterday. It's a Lotus Elan and the silly ass can barely fit behind the steering wheel."


"I hadn't heard, but considering it's Fatty, I can't say I'm surprised. He does love his sports cars. This is what, the third in the past year?" They continued to discuss Fatty and his new car as they walked to the kitchen, arm in arm.


Merry's blatant rudeness didn't hurt, but Frodo's acceptance of it did. Well, thought Sam as he followed them, his gaze fixed on those closely linked arms, I reckon you know where you stand now, don't you, Sam Gamgee, you great numbskull.


If Sam had been the sort of hobbit to enjoy a spot of revenge, he would have got satisfaction from Pippin's behaviour when they entered the kitchen.


"Oh hullo, Merry," Pippin said from his spot at the table, where he had already made substantial inroads into an astonishingly large wedge of meat pie. "You're just in time for tea. Mrs. Rumble made fairy cakes." He patted the empty seat to his right and said in the manner of one conferring a great honour, "Sam, this is your seat. I saved it for you."


Oh gracious, Sam thought, seeing Merry's face tighten, we're for it now, I reckon.


"Then Merry shall sit next to me," said Frodo, but it was clear from the darkling look that Merry shot Sam as they sat down that matters could not be smoothed over so easily.


As it happened, Sam wasn't the sort of hobbit to enjoy a spot of revenge, and the meal was a vastly uncomfortable one for him. Pippin insisted on enumerating for Frodo and Merry's edification all that he and Sam had been up to. He described Sam as 'a right 'un' and informed Merry that Sam made the best chocolate chip pancakes Pippin had ever eaten. "'Light as air and melt in your mouth', that's what Frodo said, didn't you, Frodo?"


"So I did, Pip," Frodo replied, whilst Merry scowled.


All in all, if he'd had his druthers, Sam would have retreated to his bedroom and skipped tea, even if it meant missing out on the really very excellent fairy cakes, the lot of which Pippin was in a fair way to devouring single-handedly. It seemed that no one except for Pippin had a particularly good appetite. Certainly Sam didn't, not with Merry Brandybuck glowering at him from right across the table - when he wasn't engaging Frodo in low-voiced conversation, that is, his head tilted confidingly toward his cousin in a manner that kept Sam from hearing what was said.


Mrs. Rumble was uncharacteristically quiet as she went about her work, or so Sam judged from the speculative looks that Frodo gave her from time to time. She carefully did not meet Frodo's eyes, and Sam recalled what she'd started to say earlier about whom she feared Frodo might ask to watch Pippin. Could she have meant Merry? Sam wondered. But he had the distinct impression that she was less than thrilled by Merry's presence in the smial.


This sort of speculation, and the almost palpable undercurrents swirling in the room, were foreign to Sam's straightforward nature, and he found them bewildering and tiring. He longed for an end to it, even more for an end to Merry's visit which had introduced a sour note into what had thus far been one of the most enjoyable experiences of Sam's life.


Eventually the interminable meal wound to a close, even Pippin having reached the limit his stomach could hold, and Sam breathed a silent sigh of relief when Frodo got up from the table.


"Nap time for you, my lad," Frodo said to Pippin, catching him yawning. Pippin made none of the expected objections to this announcement, which told Sam that he was in fact ready for a nap.


"I'll take him, Frodo," said Merry quickly.


But Pippin said crossly, "I don't want you, Merry. I want Sam," and held out his arms to Sam.


Sam could almost feel the dagger looks being directed his way by Merry as he stood and lifted Pippin up from his chair. The lad wound his arms and legs around Sam, and under any other circumstances Sam would have been touched by the trust this demonstrated. But Pippin's action seemed likely only to add to the already fraught situation, and Sam feared that Merry would take his ire out on the closest available object: Frodo. He longed to say something to alleviate the tension, but he was wise enough to know that anything he said was likely to make matters worse, so he kept his mouth firmly shut.


"You go on, Sam," Frodo said. Implicit in his words seemed to be a promise that he would deal with Merry and the inevitable fallout.


"Very good, sir," Sam replied, and an emotion flashed across Frodo's face that might have been hurt or anger or some combination of both. Sam didn't wait to see any more, but carried Pippin out of the kitchen and along to his bedchamber. Pippin's head was tucked confidingly into the crook of Sam's neck, and he smelled as healthy young children do, of soap and clean sweat and sweet innocence. The foolish wishes that Sam couldn't keep at bay rose up again despite himself. Oh, to have a child of his own to carry thus... his child and Frodo's...


Pippin was nodding by the time Sam laid him carefully in his bed, removed his jumper, and tucked him in; but the lad was not too sleepy to demand a story, saying, "Mum always tells me a story before I nap."


So Sam seated himself on the edge of the bed, smiled down at Pippin and said, "Shall I tell you the story of Bard and the dragon?"


"Yes, please," said Pippin.


But long before Bard had loosed his black arrow, Pippin was drowned fathoms deep in sleep. Sam sat on a while, lost in thought, recalling the evening he'd told the same tale to Sancho Proudfoot and how Frodo had come to the canteen and spirited Sam off to The Fauntling for supper - as a replacement for Merry, who had had to leave town early. Eventually he sighed and got up. Well, at least he had a tour of the smial to look forward to, even if it seemed inevitable that Merry would be a part of it.


Sam retraced his footsteps toward the kitchen, wondering where Frodo might now be. In his study? The door to that room was ajar, he noticed, and hearing voices, he paused outside it.


"I could have watched Pippin," Merry was saying with some passion. "I should have watched Pippin instead of some clodhopper of a farmer's son from who knows where. He doesn't belong here, Frodo. All he has to do is open his mouth to make that patently obvious."


"My dear Merry," Frodo responded, "what does Sam's parentage or where he's from have to do with anything? What matters is that he's a trained nurse, nothing else."


"Oh, so now you are taking his part, are you? When he's blatantly attempting to steal Pippin's affections from me?"


"You are making a mountain out of a molehill. Sam has the allure of the new and novel, that's all. Pippin has always been devoted to you, Merry, and that won't change simply because a competent nurse accustomed to dealing with sick children cares for him for a couple of days. Now come, we've wasted enough time talking about Sam Gamgee. Surely there are more interesting topics we can discuss."


Sam didn't stay to hear any more. He retreated, the back of his hand pressed to his mouth against the sounds of distress that were trying to force their way out, and fled to his room. His father was wont to say, 'Eavesdroppers don't never hear no good of themselves, Samwise.' Well, that was certainly proven to be true.


What he wanted more than anything was to crawl straight into bed and cry his heart out, but it wouldn't do. He expected Frodo to come looking for him any moment, and how would he explain his tears? I was listening at the door, you see, and you made it plain that I'm naught to you, not even worth the trouble of defending. If Frodo felt like that, was it his fault? If Sam had foolishly gone and fallen in love with a hobbit who was by birth, upbringing and circumstance as different from him as chalk from cheese, who was to blame? Not Frodo.


Sam went into the bathroom, turned on the tap and splashed cold water on his hot face. Then he employed the coping skills he'd developed in hospital to deal with the sad and sometimes tragic cases with which he was involved, and by the time a soft knock came at the door, he had regained a measure of calm.


"Sam, are you there?"


"Yes," Sam replied. He quickly opened the dresser drawer and began to rearrange his clothes as if his life depended on it, for at the sound of Frodo's voice, he realised that, coping skills or no, his hold on his emotions was tenuous at best.


"May I come in?"


"Of course."


The door opened, but Frodo didn't step inside. He remained on the threshold and Sam, glancing at him, thought that he appeared oddly ill at ease, nothing like the cool, self-assured hobbit Sam had come to know.


"Any difficulty getting Pippin down for his nap?" Frodo asked.


"Not a bit of it. He was out like a light almost soon's I got him tucked in." Sam shut the drawer full of now thoroughly disarranged clothes and pinned a resolutely cheerful smile to his face. "I'm ready for that tour of the smial you promised," he said, facing Frodo.


Frodo's discomfited expression deepened, and before he even spoke, Sam understood with a sick little jolt of disappointment that there would be no tour. "I am very sorry, Sam," Frodo said quietly, "but we'll have to put it off for another time. Merry and I are going out and we shan't be back until late. I hope you aren't too disappointed."


"How should I be?" lied Sam, who was disappointed indeed. "Family takes priority." What else Merry was to Frodo, Sam didn't want to guess.


"Takes priority?" Frodo gave an odd, short laugh. "Yes, I suppose you could say that. But at least I can leave Pippin in your care with an easy mind. He has bonded with you wonderfully, Sam."


Because I'm a competent nurse used to dealing with sick children, you mean? Sam was tempted to say it aloud, but that would be to reveal his eavesdropping, even if it had been inadvertent.


Instead he replied, "Reckon the feeling is mutual. I'd not mind having a child of my own like him someday."


Frodo smiled faintly. "Perhaps you shall. But to get back to this evening, Mrs. Rumble has left to visit her daughter in Bywater, so you and Pippin will be on your own. Help yourself to whatever you like in the kitchen and make yourself free of the television in the sitting room if you have any favourite programmes you like to watch." He paused, then grimaced slightly and said, "Well, Merry is waiting for me in the car, so I'd best be off now."


"I hope you have an enjoyable evening, sir," Sam said as Frodo turned to go.


Frodo whipped around so abruptly that Sam actually took a step backward, blundering into the dresser. The brass drawer-pull dug painfully into the small of his back, but he barely noticed, for his attention was riveted by the blaze of blue fire that had leaped to life in Frodo's eyes and the flags of red colour burning high on his cheeks.


"Samwise Gamgee, if you ever dare call me 'sir' again, I swear I shall..." Frodo ground out, sounding furious, and then, seeming to lose all patience, he crossed the room in a few swift strides, grabbed Sam by the shoulders and kissed him hard on the lips. "Do this. Have I made myself clear?" he said, stepping back. His expression was almost grim.


Without waiting for a reply, not that the stunned Sam could have summoned one in any case, Frodo stalked off. Sam stared stupidly at the empty doorway, his mouth hanging open from sheer astonishment, then he groped for the bed and sank down on it, stunned.


Frodo had finally kissed him again, as he'd fervently desired him to, but with such a difference. In truth, Sam couldn't make head or tails out of his behaviour. Why had Frodo berated him with such vehemence over a simple 'sir'? Why had he kissed him, when he'd made it plain to Merry that he saw Sam as only an efficient colleague, and when he was, right at that very moment, driving away with Merry for a date?


After several more minutes of fruitless mill-wheel speculation, Sam's head was aching and he was no closer to an answer. All he did know was that Frodo Baggins was the most mystifying hobbit in existence, and that if he had a jot of sense he'd stop trying to figure Frodo and his motives out and instead go along to the kitchen and decide what to make for Pippin's dinner.


So that was precisely what Sam did.


~*~


It was difficult to feel entirely downhearted in Bag End's marvel of a kitchen, and Sam's glass-half-full personality began to reassert itself as he poked through the fridge and pantry to see what was available to cook. His dad always said that there was no point in borrowing trouble when it was like to come looking for you all on its own. He had Frodo Baggins's trust and respect, and that was a high honour indeed, and more than enough to go on with.


Whilst putting together the ingredients for a shepherd's pie, Sam gave some thought to how best he might keep Pippin occupied until dinner was ready. As he mashed boiled potatoes with milk, butter and an egg yolk for the topping, an idea came to him, and by the time he went to wake Pippin from his nap, everything was arranged.


"Where are Frodo and Merry?" Pippin asked as he followed Sam to the kitchen, from which a delicious odour was now wafting. His pointy nose twitched.


"They've gone out," Sam replied and added apologetically, "It'll be just the two of us, I'm afraid."


But Pippin slipped his small hand into Sam's and skipped a few steps, seeming well content. "I don't mind, Sam," he said brightly, smiling up at him. "Merry acts silly around Frodo anyway. His eyes go all googly."


Out of the mouths of babes, Sam thought ruefully, and wondered if his eyes went all googly, too, when he looked at Frodo.


"What's this?" Pippin asked when they went into the kitchen and he saw the bottles of food colouring and the tins of flour and salt set out on the table.


"I thought we'd make some playdough whilst dinner's cooking," said Sam. "Would you like that?"


"Ohhh," Pippin said, his eyes widening. "We can make our own? Mum always buys ours at the shop."


Sam lifted Pippin and set him on his chair, outfitted with a booster seat. "We can indeed. It's easy." He didn't add that it was also less expensive than the shop-bought variety, since he doubted that the cost saving factor was likely to matter to a Thain's son. "You can make a present for your mum and dad, and still have plenty left over to take home with you."


He'd packed a set of surgical scrubs, in the event he was called on to do any actual nursing, and now he put the top over Pippin to protect his clothes from the mess. The lad was delighted by his makeshift smock, and asked Sam, very seriously, "Do you wear this when you help Frodo to cut hobbits open?" Sam laughingly replied yes, and began to wonder if in young Peregrin Took he was seeing a budding surgeon who might one day join his cousin on staff at Bywater Medical Centre.


The scrubs-top-turned-smock turned out to be a very good idea, for the playdough making process, whilst neither lengthy nor complicated, was messy, mainly due to Pippin's enthusiastic stirring of the flour mixture in the saucepan. He was clearly having the time of his life, and so infectious were his high spirits that Sam was soon laughing right along with him.


Pippin was adding orange stripes to his colourful playdough creation, a cat with a purple body, red legs and tail, blue whiskers and green eyes, when a shrill ringing came from the hallway.


"You finish up whilst I get that, Pippin," Sam said, giving Pippin an encouraging smile before stepping out to answer the phone.


As Sam thought it might be, the caller was Tina Took, following through on her promise to ring up. She sounded more than a trifle apprehensive when she asked Sam how he and Pippin were getting on, but Sam hastened to set her mind at ease, assuring her that everything was right as rain. Which wasn't strictly true, at least not from his perspective, but Tina didn't need to hear about his romantic woes.


"All I can say is that you are indeed a marvel, Sam, just as Frodo told me," Tina said with obvious relief. A comment that was flattering as far as it went, which sadly, Sam now knew, wasn't very far.


They chatted for a few minutes, Sam filling her in on how Pippin had spent his day, and then Tina asked to speak to Frodo. "He's not here," Sam said, striving to keep his voice without emotion. "He's gone out for the evening."


"He has?" Tina sounded surprised.


"Yes, with Merry Brandybuck."


"Merry?" The warmth and openness that, in Sam's experience thus far, characterised Tina Took was nowhere in evidence as she repeated Merry's name. Sam couldn't help but recall Mrs. Rumble's reaction when she saw Merry enter the kitchen, and he concluded that Tina, too, wasn't best pleased that Merry had turned up at Bag End. And yet, it was clear that Merry was a large presence in Pippin's life and the two cousins were quite close. "I see," she said in a guarded voice. Then she sighed and added, "Poor Frodo. And so all his plans are turned topsy-turvy."


Sam didn't know quite how to respond to this, having no idea what plans Frodo had to be turned topsy-turvy, so he opted for a change of subject. "Would you like to talk to Pippin?" he asked.


"Please. I daresay it will seem silly to you, as we've only been apart for a day, but I do miss my little boy dreadfully."


"It don't seem silly at all," replied Sam. "He's a right charmer, your son, and that's a fact."


"He is, isn't he?" Motherly pride came clearly down the phone line.


Sam fetched Pippin (after cleaning his doughy fingers with a wet cloth first) and handed him the receiver. "Mum," Pippin said in a breathless rush, "I made a cat, and Sam gave me a toy dragon and he made me chocolate chip pancakes and we played 'Snakes and Ladders' and I won, and I didn't put a spider in Sam's bed, although I was going to, and he says that it's a good thing because he might have squashed it, and did you know he gets to watch Frodo cut hobbits open?"


Grinning, Sam left them to it, and returned to the kitchen. He removed the shepherd's pie from the Aga; it was bubbling nicely and the mash on top was a perfect golden-brown. The roasted sprouts and carrots were done to a turn as well.


By the time Pippin returned, Sam had wrapped up the left-over playdough, set the table - giving Pippin's colourful cat pride of place in the centre - and whipped double cream with vanilla for the strawberry shortcake he'd made for their afters.


"Ready to eat?" he asked Pippin, who nodded vigorously and clambered up onto his booster seat.


Sam dished up the potpie and veg, his pleasure in creating the meal tempered by Frodo's absence. For Sam, cooking for others was as much an expression of caring as it was a means of filling their stomachs. He had an abundance of love pent up inside him to lavish on Frodo Baggins, whether or no, and he wanted to give as much of it as he could before Mr. Brockhouse returned from his sick leave in eight days' time and Frodo went out of his life forever. Foolish, maybe, to spend it on a lost cause, but his dad had once told him that, hard as it was to lose his Bell, he wouldn't trade the years they had together for anything, even if they had been far too few. To love and to give love, even if it were unrequited, was a gift that could only enrich his life, surely. But Sam's aching heart wasn't so certain.


~*~


"And he never stomped on a turnip again." Sam shut the picture book on his lap - An Oliphaunt in the Garden, a childhood favourite that he had brought with him - and set it on the nightstand.


"I liked that story, Sam," Pippin said and then sighed and added, "I do wish Frodo had an oliphaunt in his garden."


"So do I," said Sam, who had always been fascinated by the enormous grey creatures with the curved ivory tusks and dearly wanted someday to travel south to the great plains of Harad and see one for himself. "Now, shut your eyes and I'll sing an oliphaunt song to you."


Obediently Pippin closed his eyes, long lashes fanned out on his cheeks, and Sam began to sing the simple tune, one he'd made up himself, "Grey as a mouse and big as a house..."


Before long Pippin was fast asleep with his arms securely wrapped around his fluffy bear. Sam got up and stood for a moment staring down at the peacefully sleeping child who, in the course of one short day, had become so dear to him. A gift indeed was young Pippin Took, as his mother had said. Impulsively, Sam stooped and, smoothing back the tumbled golden curls, kissed him softly on the brow. "That's from your dad and mum, and from me, too. Sleep well, little one," he whispered and smoothed the bed cover before straightening and reaching across the colourful playdough cat to shut off the table lamp.


By the soft glow of the nightlight plugged in near the bed, Sam stole quietly away, leaving the door partway open. He didn't cross the hall to his own room, but turned left, walking along the empty hall to the rhythmic ticking of a stately grandfather clock. The smial was alive as only an old and cherished home could be, replete with generations of memories and the almost palpable presence of those who had gone before; yet that served to make Sam feel the more alone somehow.


It was his own fault, Sam thought as he made his way to the kitchen to put the kettle on for a cup of chamomile tea, a soothing nightly ritual. Wishing for the moon as he couldn't seem to stop himself from doing nohow. "You don't belong here, Samwise Gamgee," he said aloud, but the statement lacked conviction because never before had he felt this acutely that he was precisely where he did belong. Which only proved yet again that he was indeed a ninnyhammer, and he didn't need his dad to tell him so.


Sam made his tea and carried it into the sitting room where the large colour television would provide a welcome distraction from his own thoughts. Though he had little time in the general way for watching the telly, his favourite show, Gardeners' World, ran a repeat on SBC Two at eight-thirty, and it was now only a few minutes until the programme started. He turned the television on, marvelling at the difference between it and the ancient black and white telly he shared with his holemates, whose screen was liberally sprinkled with snow so that the action was often more to be guessed at than observed. He turned the knob to the channel he wanted then settled down in a comfy flowered chintz easy chair with his cuppa to watch the show.


During a demonstration on the grafting of cherry trees, Sam found himself nodding off and what remained of the now lukewarm tea perilously close to slopping over the wobbling rim and onto the chintz. He set the cup carefully on a side table, gave himself a stern lecture on the necessity of staying awake, and with that promptly fell sound asleep.


~*~


He dreamed that he was in the Bag End garden. The sun was high in a cerulean sky dotted with fluffy white clouds that drifted along on a gentle breeze. Spade in hand, he knelt in the soft dirt beside a flat of multicoloured pansies that he was planting. Deep content filled him, as if life could offer no greater joy than this. As he reached for a midnight blue pansy to set in the hole he'd just dug, something lightly brushed against his cheek and across his mouth. Startled, he looked up to discover Frodo silhouetted against the sky. He was smiling down at Sam, and Sam's heart caught at his beauty.


"Do you like butter, Sam?" Frodo teasingly asked, and he placed the dainty yellow petals of the buttercup he held beneath Sam's chin. "Ah, the flower says you do."


"And it'd be right, for I do, and that's a fact," Sam replied. "But there's something I like even better." He stretched out his hand, intending to grasp Frodo's wrist and pull him into a kiss, when a voice intruded into his dream.


"Sam," it said, "wake up."


No, Sam protested, struggling against the voice's insistent demand, but it was no good. The sunny garden faded; Sam's eyes opened against his will, and he discovered Frodo smiling down at him, disconcertingly like he had in the dream, but he held no flower now.


"It was a shame to wake you, Sam, you looked so peaceful," Frodo said, "but you don't want to spend the night sleeping in an armchair. You'll wake with a crick in your neck."


Sam gathered his wits with some difficulty, for he was still partially held in the spell of the dream and all too aware of where it had been about to lead. "What's the time?" he asked groggily, sitting up.


"Nearly half past midnight," replied Frodo.


"It is?" Sam was appalled. What must Frodo think of him, acting as if this were his own hole and him free to nod off in an easy chair? "I shouldn't ought to have fallen asleep," he said remorsefully.


"Nonsense. After chasing after Pippin all day, it would be a wonder if you didn't fall asleep. You musn't go making a mountain out of a molehill," Frodo gently chided, using almost the precise words he'd spoken earlier to Merry.


Merry. Everything came flooding back then: Merry's unexpected appearance, his undisguised dislike of Sam, the overheard conversation between him and Frodo, the cancelled tour of the smial...


"Where's Merry?"


Sam regretted the question as soon as it left his lips, but Frodo's expression was inscrutable as he replied, "He's gone home to Buckland."


"Oh." Undeniably relieved by this information, for if he never met Merry Brandybuck again it would be far too soon, Sam pushed himself to his feet. "I hope the two of you had a nice time," he added with an effort, feeling that more was required from him than a simple 'Oh.'


"Nice enough, but it wasn't how I planned on spending the evening. Sam, I must apologise again for running out on you like that and leaving you to your own devices."


But Sam said at once, "You've no need to apologise, Frodo. Like I said last night, I'm here to look after Pippin, and I'm getting paid for it, too."


For a moment something flared in Frodo's eyes, a look Sam recognised and had him alternately longing for and fearing a repetition of what had happened earlier in his bedroom - for which, Sam realised, Frodo had offered no apology. And then Frodo relaxed and said, "Now is not the time for this discussion. We'll continue it later. I'm tired and want my bed."


Now that he mentioned it, Sam thought that Frodo did indeed look tired, tired as he'd never seen him, even after the longest and most grueling surgery schedule. Immediately his heart forgot every hurt and his only concern was for Frodo and his well-being. "And here I am, keeping you up," he said remorsefully. "I don't know what Mrs. Rumble would say."


At that Frodo laughed out loud. "That I am well served for going out gallivanting with Merry, and she would be right."


Sam had no answer for this; he dearly wished that he had been the hobbit with whom Frodo had gone out gallivanting - whatever that meant, and he didn't care as long as he could be with Frodo.


Then Frodo's expression sobered and he said, "I have a few things to do yet before I turn in. You go on, Sam, and don't wait for me. No doubt Pip will have you up with the birds, if not sooner."


It was unmistakably a dismissal, and so Sam made no protest but with a quiet good-night went along to his room, very much plagued by a depression of spirits that no amount of his dad's helpful sayings could alleviate.


Only when he was at last in bed with the lights out did Sam recall his dream and the light teasing brush on his cheek and across his lips that had proceeded Frodo's voice waking him. Could it possibly have been real, and if not the brush of a buttercup then what...? But he fell asleep before the thought could complete itself.


~*~


"But I want Sam to come home with us," Pippin said unhappily to his parents. "Can't he be my nanny and stay forever and ever?"


"Sam has his own home and his own job, Pippin," Paladin Took said gravely, although Sam could detect a slight quiver in his voice. Indeed, the situation was rather humorous, especially considering the fears of his parents that Pippin would run Sam ragged. Instead he'd quite fallen in love with Sam and now was proving as reluctant to say good-bye to his nurse as he'd been to have him around in the first place.


"I need Sam to help me, erm, cut hobbits open," put in Frodo with equal gravity. "Truly, I should be lost without him."


Oh, if only that were true, thought Sam, but in the face of Pippin's unhappiness, he couldn't really dwell on his own. And Pippin demonstrated that unhappiness by saying, "I'll miss you awfully, Sam," in about the mournfullest voice Sam had ever heard, before wrapping his arms around Sam's legs and burying his face against his trousers.


"Oh dear," Tina said, seeming truly distressed as she looked at her son clinging to Sam.


But Sam gently loosened Pippin's grip and knelt on the drive so that he was at eye level with the child. “I’ll miss you awfully, too, Pippin, and that's a fact, but there’s a thing called the Shire post, ain't there. If your mum and dad are agreeable, I’ll write to you soon’s I get home.”


Pippin turned imploring green eyes to his parents. “Please, may Sam write to me?”


"Of course he may, Pippin," Paladin replied at once, and said to Sam, "Frodo can provide you with our direction, Sam."


"Thank you, sir."


Pippin exchanged a final fierce hug with Sam and then Frodo. With dragging feet he made his way to the Jaguar and climbed into the back seat. As his parents were about to join him, Tina said gently, "Dear, aren't you forgetting something?"


"Oh yes, of course." Paladin patted the sagging pockets of his tweed jacket and fished a folded slip of paper from the right one. "Sam, this is for you, with our deepest thanks."


Sam took the cheque but didn't even glance at it. Previous arrangements to the contrary, it felt quite simply wrong to take money from this kindly couple for the privilege of watching their son. But he suspected any attempt to return it would be firmly rejected, and it would be a little extra he could send to his dad. So he stowed the cheque away, shook Paladin's hand and then blushed when Tina embraced him in a cloud of expensive perfume and said, "This isn't farewell, for I've no doubt we will see you again very soon, Sam."


Then Paladin and Tina got in their car and, with Pippin kneeling on the back seat waving frantically from the window, drove away.


The Jaguar disappeared from view down the Hill, and in the ensuing silence Sam let out an unconscious sigh. Frodo remarked, "For such an imp of mischief, Pippin does leave rather a large hole behind when he's gone."


"He does and all," agreed Sam, already missing the imp of mischief who, in truth, had been less mischievous than utterly winning.


"But you musn't be melancholy, Sam. As my aunt said, no doubt you will be seeing them again soon." Frodo smiled. "Now, what do you say to a final turn around the garden before we take our leave? One last breath of country air will do us both good, I don't doubt."


Taking Sam's assent for granted, Frodo set out along the curving path that led directly from the courtyard into the garden. As they paced slowly across the verdant lawn, Sam found it difficult to shake his melancholy. But it had less to do with Pippin now than it did with his surroundings: the beautiful smial, its garden and its master: each perfection itself, each entirely out of his poor reach.


"So what do you think of Bag End now you've had a taste?" Frodo asked, breaking the silence.


"I think that if it were mine, I couldn't bear ever to leave it," replied Sam honestly. "I don't know how you can, Frodo, and that's a fact."


That curious expression came over Frodo's face again, but his eyes shone bluer than the sky above them as he said, "Ah, but the most unexpected treasure can be found when one goes away, Sam, treasure that might never be discovered if one remained always at home. Nor am I ever as aware of Bag End's beauty as when I return after an absence."


"Maybe, but the treasure would have to be more valuable than a dragon's hoard to be worth it, if you ask me."


"Oh, it is, I assure you; far more valuable."


Sam was a little taken aback, having assumed that Frodo had been talking in the abstract, not the concrete. He must mean Merry, he thought, and decided to change the subject, not anxious to hear any more about Frodo's 'treasure'.


"Mr. Twofoot is a marvel," he quickly said. "I can see why he'll be nigh impossible to replace."


"As to that..." Frodo paused then laughed lightly. "You don't realise it, but you've just given me an opening I've been looking for. Sam, I must confess that I had an ulteriour motive in suggesting this walk in the garden. You see, there is something I should like to discuss with you."


Sam's heart plummeted to his hairy toes. "There - there is?"


"Yes." Frodo came to a halt and turned to face Sam. "Do you remember what I said when we were driving down here, about wishing I had someone with whom I could share the work of running Bag End?"


Sam's heart plummeted further: straight down through the lush green grass, the earth beneath, and even the solid bedrock underlying it all. It seemed that the worst he'd been fearing was about to come true.


"I remember," he said, around the lump in his throat.


Frodo lowered the metaphorical boom. "I want you to be that someone, Sam." He held Sam with those blue, blue eyes. Sam couldn't look away, although he dearly wanted to as his dreams crashed around him.


"I can't be your gardener, Frodo." Sam was proud of the steadiness of his voice; it might have come out a wail.


But Frodo shook his head. "I don't think you quite understand," he said gently. "I'm not asking you to be my gardener. I'm asking you to marry me."


For a wild moment, Sam thought his smashed dreams resurrected, his fervent wishes miraculously granted. Frodo had just asked Sam to marry him! But then, before Sam could formulate a coherent reply, Frodo went on, "I want you to be my partner in all things, Sam. From the first day we met, your competence and your caring heart impressed me, and over time I've come to admire you more and more. We work well as a team in the operating theatre and I think we could work even better as a team of married partners. It's clear that you've taken to Bag End, and I believe Bag End has taken to you. Certainly Mrs. Rumble has, and that is recommendation enough in my eyes." He tilted his head to the side and looked quizzically at Sam. "What do you say, Sam? Will you marry me?"


By the end of this speech, Sam made the unhappy discovery that he'd been wrong: Frodo asking him to be his gardener wasn't the worst that could happen, not by a long road. Far, far worse was having the cup of happiness held to his parched lips only to be dashed away before he'd taken so much as a single sip. Frodo had asked Sam to marry him, yes, but nowhere in his dispassionate proposal had that most important of words, the only one that truly mattered, put in an appearance. Frodo had said nothing about love. For all the emotion in his voice, he might have been discussing the weather.


I can't do it, Sam thought miserably. I can't marry him. Not like this, leastways. I'm not his treasure, that's clear; it's Merry he thinks of that way. I'm naught but a useful tool to him, no better than something I'd hand him during surgery. I love him, whether or no, but he don't love me, and what hope can there be for a marriage based on convenience?


"Sam?" Frodo prompted, still in that cool, collected voice. "If you need some time to think about my offer..."


Sam gathered his wits and his resolve. "No," he said. "I don't need time. You can have my answer now." He drew a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Frodo, but I can't marry you." Refusing Frodo was the hardest thing he'd ever done, bar none, for a part of him, deep down, wanted to say 'yes', no matter the cost or the consequences.


"I see." Sam thought he caught a flicker of hurt in those expressive eyes, but it was quickly gone and Frodo's expression resumed its unruffled calm. "May I ask why not?"


For a panicky moment Sam floundered, realising that he didn't have a reason for his refusal prepared, or at any rate a reason he could bear to share with Frodo. And then Sam recalled some words Frodo had said during their dinner atThe Fauntling and he grabbed at them like a lifeline.


"You said once that Matron is looking to me to fill her footprints when she retires, and that it will be a good career move for me. And you were right, it will be. The plain fact is, I'm wedded to my work. Caring for sick children is my life." Sam swallowed hard. "But I - I'm right sensible of the honour you've done me, Frodo, and I hope you understand why I can't accept your offer."


There was a silence, during which Sam prayed fervently that Frodo wouldn't see through him, that he would accept Sam's explanation and not try to dissuade him. He very much feared that his resolution might crumble like a withered leaf if Frodo did.


"Of course I understand, Sam," Frodo said at last, very quietly. "Although I'd be lying if I said I'm not disappointed. I think we could have a good, useful life together, you and I. However, I'm aware how strong your vocation is, and I shan't try to change your mind. You're an outstanding charge nurse with a brilliant future ahead of you. Northfarthing General is blessed to have a hobbit of your calibre working for them."


"Thank you, Frodo," Sam replied, and then looked miserably down at his toes, wishing, for a very different reason now, that they would sink right through the ground and take the rest of him with them. He didn't know what to say next or how to act. What were the rules when you'd just turned down a proposal of marriage but the rejected suitor was your host and your means of getting home? Maybe he should offer to take a cab back to Long Cleeve or simply start walking...


But he ought to have known that Frodo was equipped to handle even this difficult scenario with aplomb. He said, "Sam, I'm certain we're not the first couple to face such an awkward situation. There's no need to feel embarrassed or uneasy. We're still friends, I hope, if nothing more."


Sam looked up at that to find Frodo smiling kindly at him. Involuntary tears filled his eyes, tears of relief and shame and sorrow. "Of course we are," he said.


Frodo set a bracing hand on Sam's shoulder, squeezed it briefly and let go. "Then we'll forget my proposal, put it completely behind us and continue on as friends, and friends alone. All right?"


"All right," Sam replied, and returned Frodo's smile. It was a wobbly effort, but the best he could manage under the circumstances.


Frodo said in a brisk, business-like voice, "Good. Now, perhaps we should go in and take our leave of Mrs. Rumble. We have a long drive ahead of us and a busy surgery schedule tomorrow at the hospital." He added, with a rueful curve of his lips, "You'll be glad of that, I don't doubt."


"I will, and that's a fact," Sam said, and it was the truth. He was going to need to keep busy and leave himself no time to regret the choice he'd made. And oh, as he followed Frodo back to the front door with the splendour of Bag End and its garden mocking him with might-have-beens, regret nearly swamped him. He couldn't help but envision what life would be like if he'd said yes to Frodo's proposal, how he could look around him with the possessive pride of one who had the right. How he could tell himself, 'I belong here,' and mean it.


But hard on the heels of that thought came another, one that restored his hobbity common-sense and put an end to the foolish wishes he'd been harbouring since the day he looked into a pair of bright blue eyes set in the fairest face he had ever beheld: he couldn't tell himself that he had Frodo's love.


And that trumped all.


~*~


The drive home from Bag End was awkward, to say the least. Sam, who was useless at small talk, sat mumchance in the passenger seat whilst Frodo filled the silence with a running monologue about interesting medical cases he'd had, his favourite restaurants, rugby, football and even the weather. The wonder was that he still had a voice left by the time the Rolls pulled up in front of Sam's hole.


And then came the even more awkward moment of parting, at least on Sam's end. He didn't have a clue what to say beyond an all-encompassing but totally inadequate 'thank you'. Frodo rose to the occasion with an élan that Sam could only marvel at and envy. It seemed that nothing, not even the refusal of his marriage proposal, could discompose him. He got Sam's valise out of the trunk, smiled at him and said, "I'll see you bright and early in the morning, Sam. Thank you again for your superb care of Pippin."


Then he held out his shapely hand that had saved so many young lives, and when Sam placed his own inside it, pressed it and said kindly, "Friends, remember?"


Sam made an effort to return Frodo's smile and replied, "Friends, Frodo." He picked up valise and started up the path to the front door of the hole.


"Sam," Frodo said.


His heart thumping, Sam stopped and turned round, stubborn hope rising his breast. "Yes?" he asked.


"I nearly forgot to give you this." Frodo pulled a folded slip of paper from his coat pocket and brought it Sam. "It's the direction for my aunt and uncle, so you can write to Pippin. He'll be expecting a letter yesterday, I fear."


That had a grin tugging at Sam's lips. "He will and all. I'll make certain to write soon as I can." He took the slip and pocketed it.


"Good. Well, good night, Sam. See you in the morning."


"Good night, Frodo."


And so they parted. Later, as he undressed for bed, Sam recalled the paper with the Tooks' address on it and retrieved it from his pocket. With it was the cheque that Paladin had given him, and when Sam unfolded it and saw the amount written on it, he actually choked and wondered if his eyes were deceiving him. Fifty pounds? It was too much, far too much. But what could he do? Paladin and Tina would never allow him to refuse it, and it would nicely pad his dad's savings account that was never as full as Sam liked. "The rich are different from you and me, Samwise," his dad had once told him. That was true, and no mistake. With a sigh, he set the cheque on his dresser, but the paper with the Tooks' address he put on the bedside table.


When he was in bed, Sam picked it up and looked at it for a long time, simply because the handwriting was Frodo's and it was some small part of him that Sam now possessed. Eventually he sighed and returned it to the table top, and after he turned off the lamp and the room was plunged into comforting darkness, Sam gave his feelings free rein and cried into his lumpy pillow.


~*~


Rosie practically pounced on Sam when he arrived at hospital next morning. "How was it? Were the aunt and uncle nice? What is Frodo's smial like? Is it very posh?"


The questions tumbled out in rapid succession, and Sam, despite his depressed spirits, had to laugh. "You are a caution, Rose Cotton, and no mistake. The Tooks couldn't have been nicer, and yes, Bag End is very posh."


"Ooh, if it was anyone but you, I'd be seething with jealousy." Rosie slipped her arm through Sam's and hugged it. "But you deserve every good thing that comes your way and more, Sam Gamgee. Now tell me, what about you and Frodo?"


Sam ought to have known. Rosie was nothing if not a matchmaker, and since discovering that Frodo batted for the other cricket team (as the saying went), had pinned her romantic hopes on Sam landing the handsome, rich, successful Mr. Baggins.


"What about me and Frodo?" Sam said, endeavouring to sound nonchalant. He'd had a bit of practice with his holemates, brushing off their good-natured inquisitiveness with a 'You lot never give up, do you? I told you, I was only there to look after Frodo's cousin, that's all.'


Rosie, however, was a different ball of wax. Working as closely with Sam as she did, she had learnt to read him like a book - a child's primer, for whilst Sam might manage to pull the wool over the eyes of Tom, Jolly, Nick and Milo, she wasn't so easily bamboozled.


"You know exactly what, Sam," she said. He couldn't help it; his cheeks reddened. "Ah, something did happen between you, I knew it!"


"Nothing happened, Rosie. Nothing's changed. We're only friends, is all." Valiantly as he tried, Sam couldn't keep a despondent note from entering his voice.


"Sam, did he trifle with you and break your heart?" Rosie demanded, a martial light in her eyes. "Oh, I'm going to have a few words with Mr. Baggins, I am."


Sam knew that she meant it, too. He was touched by her loyalty, but horrified at the very idea of her confronting Frodo and accusing him of breaking Sam's heart. Heartbroken he might be, but he had his pride, and the last thing in Middle-earth he wanted was for Frodo to know the truth.


"Rose," he said with unwonted sternness, "don't you say one word to Frodo, understand? The state of my heart is no one's affair but my own and, well, that's all I have to say about the matter. Now leave it be, please."


Rosie considered him for a long moment then nodded. "All right, Sam, but I will say this: Frodo Baggins is a clodpate not to snap you up."


Sam wondered what Rosie would say if she knew that Sam was the one who refused to snap up Frodo's offer of marriage. No doubt consider him an even bigger clodpate than Frodo. Or perhaps not. For all her talk about marrying a rich hobbit, he didn't think she'd settle for anything less than true love. Like him she was a romantic, she was just better at pretending not to be.


"Rose, Samwise, enough loitering about," said a brisk, disapproving voice. "I believe there is an operating theatre to be prepared."


It was, of course, Matron Sackville, with arms akimbo and a frown on her face.


"Yes, Matron," they murmured, but as Sam started to move away, Matron said, "A moment, Samwise, if you please. I'd like a word with you."


Rosie gave him a sympathetic, supportive look before she hurried off; it was never a good thing when Matron asked to have a private word. Sam wondered what she was going to tick him off about, but it turned out to have nothing to do with any mistake or even with his job.


"Frodo tells me you spent this past weekend at Bag End," Matron Sackville said in an almost conversational tone.


Sam was thrown off balance, but rallied and replied, "Yes, Matron. Mr. Baggins asked me if I'd take care of his young cousin who is recovering from appendix surgery whilst his parents were away."


"Eglantine Took's son, Peregrin."


"That's right, ma'am."


"Hmph. Tina Took is a sadly frivolous hobbit, and I cannot fathom what induced Paladin ever to marry her, but I suppose one can't fault her maternal devotion."


This was unexpected; the last hobbit in Middle-earth Sam would have considered likely to indulge in gossip was Matron Sackville. Not to mention that he vehemently disagreed with her assessment of Tina Took. He unreservedly adored Pippin's mum and understood completely why Paladin had married her. But he restrained himself, considering the source.


"And so you've stayed at Bag End. I consider it quite possibly the loveliest hole in the whole of the Four Farthings," she went on, and before Sam's astonished gaze a reminiscent smile transformed Matron Sackville's usually dour countenance. But what she said next astonished him even more. "At one time I thought I might become its mistress, you know." She sighed. "I fancied myself in love with Bilbo Baggins - Frodo's uncle, you know. But I was very young and dear Bilbo was far too unsteady of character to make a good husband. He saw that more clearly than I, and thankfully he had the sense to end things before they went too far. Then I found my vocation as a paediatric nurse and I've been very content - as I daresay you will be, too, when your turn comes."


Sam had moved beyond astonishment into sheer disbelief by the end of this speech. For one thing, Matron had neverdiscussed her private affairs with Sam before. For another, he was trying to visualise Lobelia Sackville as a young lass in love with Frodo's eccentric uncle, and failing utterly. But he wondered if there were more to this unexpected opening up than met the eye. Was Matron warning him against falling in love with Frodo and his beautiful hole? If so, she was too late by half - but Sam wasn't about to tell her that, nor that he'd turned down Frodo's proposal of marriage. Perhaps one day he would take the reins from her, but he wouldn't be bullied or browbeaten into it. When all was said and done, it was his life, his future, not hers nor anyone else's, and he'd be the one to decide how to live it.


"Well, I'm glad we had this little chat," Matron said, leaving Sam to wonder at her definition of a 'chat', as his end of it barely qualified. "Now off you go." She made a decisive shooing motion with her hand.


"Yes, Matron." Sam wasted no time, but bolted.


"What did the old battleaxe want?" Rosie asked when he'd scrubbed in and joined her in the operating theatre.


You'd never believe me if I told you, he thought, but aloud he said, "Nothing important, Rosie. Just giving me a spot of advice is all." Rosie snorted, as well she might.


Frodo came in with Mr. Brown a short time later, and Sam was very glad of the concealing mask over his face, for it disguised his expression, which he feared might be revealing in the extreme. Sam had eventually slept, but not well, and felt ill-equipped to handle Frodo's presence again so soon. Friends, remember? he reminded himself, but it was a hollow comfort.


"Good morning, Nurse Cotton, Nurse Gamgee," Frodo said by way of greeting.


"Good morning, Mr. Baggins," they replied, but Rosie's rejoinder was unaccompanied by her usual saucy smile, and Frodo eyed her sharply, or so it seemed to Sam.


He held his breath, hoping Rosie wasn't going to break her promise not to give Frodo a good ticking off, but then, thankfully, the first young patient was wheeled into surgery, and the focus immediately turned to the child's perforated bowel and the urgent need to repair it.


After that, matters proceeded smoothly. The usual seamless teamwork existed among them, and Sam was glad to focus on his nursing responsibilities. By the time the last operation was over, he thought that he might survive this final week of Frodo's visit after all. He'd not been optimistic on that score when he awoke at dawn, wishing he was still in his bedroom at Bag End, wishing even more that Frodo, looking delightfully sleepy and wearing his peacock blue dressing gown, would wander into the kitchen whilst Sam was making breakfast...


The day's roster completed, Frodo thanked Sam and Rosie with punctilious courtesy, but without his charming smile, and strode quickly away. It was reminiscent of the day Merry Brandybuck had come to visit him, when Frodo had appeared unusually distracted. Sam wondered with a sinking heart if Merry had followed Frodo to Long Cleeve, perhaps by arrangement, and Frodo was haring off to meet him for lunch.


It was not a happy thought and his expression as he stared at the empty doorway must have been more revealing than he realised for Rosie said, "Oh Sam, I do wish you'd let me give Frodo a talking to."


"No," Sam said emphatically. "Leave it be, Rosie. Any road, it's for the best. He's way, way out of my league."


Rosie actually stamped her foot. "Samwise Gamgee, don't you dare put yourself down like that. Why, you're good enough to marry anyone, anyone at all."


Sam had to smile at her vehemence. "I don't know about that, but I do know you're a good friend, Rose Cotton," he said, putting an arm around her shoulders and hugging her. "If there's any justice, the next visiting consultant will see what a treasure you are and snap you up."


"Go on with you, Sam Gamgee," Rosie replied, but Sam could see clearly a future for Rosie that he couldn't see for himself nohow.


~*~


The last week of Frodo's visit to Northfarthing General flew by with frightening speed. Sam rarely set eyes on Frodo outside the operating theatre; the eminent surgical consultant was even more in demand than ever, to judge from the hectic schedule he kept. Frodo did appear in Matron's office in the mornings to go over the surgery roster and partake of the goodies that Sam continued to bring in. It wasn't the same, though - at least not for Sam. Frodo was soon back on the usual footing with Rosie, teasing and laughing with her, but toward Sam he seemed reserved, and it made Sam's heart ache, even if it was inevitable given what had happened, friends or no. What Matron knew or guessed about the situation, or what Frodo might have told her, Sam couldn't tell, but she treated him with unwonted gentleness and consideration. It was very lowering; Sam found himself missing her normal acidity.


Twice Sam glimpsed the Rolls drive past as he walked home from hospital. But on neither occasion did it slow or stop, and Sam wasn't close enough to see if there were a passenger in the front seat. He was just as glad.


On the Friday, Frodo's final day, the paediatric department held a farewell tea party for Frodo in the staff lounge. The scones, muffins and biscuits were provided by Sam, who baked all of Frodo's favourites. Rosie had collected donations from those Frodo worked with during his stay in order to buy a gift for him. The general consensus among the staff was that, though they'd be happy to have Mr. Brockhouse back, Frodo Baggins would be missed. Disappointment was expressed by some that he was going to depart as single as he arrived, despite their best efforts - but they still contributed.


When the staff had gathered in the lounge, they presented him with a large thank-you card signed by all and sundry, and their gift: a beautiful crystal paperweight with a single flawless ivory rose preserved inside it. Sam, who had been deputised by Rosie to pick out Frodo's present, had spent his free afternoon on Wednesday wandering the High Street in search of something suitable. He'd seen the paperweight in the window of a tony gift shop and immediately realised that it was perfect for Frodo. Indeed, it might have been placed there for Sam to find. It had cost more than what Rosie had collected, but Sam decided to use some of the money Paladin and Tina had given him to make up the difference. It made him feel a little better about being overpaid, and there was still plenty left over for his dad.


After reading and thanking them for the card, Frodo removed the paperweight from the elegantly wrapped box, amidst admiring oohs and ahhs from the crowd gathered round, and held it up on his palm, turning it this way and that so that it caught the light and the rose inside seemed to glow.


Rosie said pointedly to Frodo, "Our Sam picked it out for you."


As Sam squirmed with embarrassment, a queer smile touched Frodo's lips and he said, "I might have guessed. This is truly exquisite, Sam. Thank you, thank you everyone. I'll keep it on my writing desk at home and think of you and Long Cleeve whenever I look at it." His eyes flicked to Sam for a moment as he spoke, and then he added, "And now it's my turn to thank all of you for making me truly feel a part of your family whilst I was here."


Frodo produced a large carrier bag bulging with gift-wrapped presents for everyone, some smaller, others decidedly not. Rosie received a stunning emerald and gold shot silk scarf that complemented her vivid colouring wonderfully. "Oh, Mr. Baggins, thank you!" she cried, flinging her arms around Frodo with a little squeal of joy and kissing him soundly on the cheek. For Mr. Brown, he had a bottle of very expensive thirty year-old single malt whisky, imported from Dale, and the anaesthesiologist turned bright red with pleasure and stammered incoherently as he clutched the bottle to his chest with some fervour.


Frodo came last of all to Sam. "Sam, this is for you with my sincerest thanks," he said, offering him a large, rectangular package wrapped in flowered paper and done up with a frothy bow. "You are, as I've said before, a truly superb charge nurse and it was an honour and a privilege to work with you."


Blushing redder than Mr. Brown, Sam took the package from Frodo. It was heavy, with the size and shape of a book. When he carefully removed bow and wrapping paper, intending to save them, he discovered that it was indeed a book, a glossy over-sized gardening book, illustrated with superb colour photographs, of the kind Sam had frequently drooled over in bookshops, but could never afford. This one was called Great Gardens of the Shire.


"You shouldn't ought to have, Frodo," Sam said, too flustered to remember professional propriety.


"Of course I ought," contradicted Frodo, sounding equal parts amused and exasperated. "And I had a reason for choosing this particular book, Sam: it has an entire chapter on Bag End's garden. I thought it would make a nice keepsake of your first visit there."


First and last, thought Sam, with a pang. But he smiled with genuine delight and said, "Thank you, sir. It's a beautiful gift."


After the gift giving and some final filling up of the corners (not to mention discreet wrapping up in napkins of any remaining goodies to be quickly secreted in pockets and up sleeves) the party wound to a close. Frodo took his farewell of the staff as they returned to their duties, and did so with great cordiality, shaking each hobbit by the hand and thanking them. Once again, he left Sam for last.


"And so we reach the end of our professional association, Sam," Frodo said, shaking Sam's hand briskly and in a business-like manner. "'Thank you' seems inadequate for your invaluable assistance. I shall miss you at my side in the operating theatre."


"Thank you, Mr. Baggins. It was a privilege to work with you, sir," replied Sam, trying hard to sound equally business-like, but afraid he was making a frightful mull of it. Indeed, it seemed to Sam that those expressive blue eyes were gently mocking at his reply. Did Frodo find their parting cause for amusement? Sam wondered, hurt.


Mr. Brown came up, interrupting Frodo before he could say anything more. "When will you be heading back to Hobbiton, Frodo?" the anaesthesiologist asked. "Tonight?"


"No, in the morning," replied Frodo. "I have a few matters to take care of before I leave Long Cleeve."


"A farewell dinner with your aunt among them?" Mr. Brown said, his eyes widening with assumed alarm. Even the doctors had a healthy respect for, if not an outright fear of, Matron Sackville.


Frodo laughed. "I had that last night, Tom. My plans for this evening are very different, I assure you."


"I'm happy to hear it."


Sam couldn't say the same, having a sinking sensation what, or rather whom, those plans involved. As he was not a part of the conversation, Sam retreated and began helping Rosie and several of the other charge nurses with the clearing up. When next Sam looked, Frodo was gone, having departed without another word for Sam, and that, presumably, was that. It seemed unlikely that he would ever set eyes on Frodo Baggins again.


~*~


Frodo's farewell gift tucked securely under his arm, Sam set off for home. Unlike the memorable day that Frodo had stopped to offer him a lift, it wasn't raining, but sunny and warm. The pavement was filled with hobbits, young and old, enjoying the beautiful afternoon.


Sam sighed. Frodo. All roads seemed to lead back to him, whether or no. Sam wondered how long it would take for him to stop hoping for the sight of the Rolls in the doctors' car park or gliding down the street. Perhaps never.


You've got to try, he admonished himself. You can't go on like this... His mental lecture abruptly came to a halt.


A child and her mother had been walking a short distance ahead of him, the little girl carrying a bright red balloon that was bobbing at the end of a short string she held in one small fist. But as Sam watched, a sudden gust of wind tore the balloon from her grasp, and sent it sailing toward the street.


"Violet, no, stop!" her mother cried, but it was too late. Violet darted after the balloon, running between two parked cars and toward the busy roadway.


Thoughts of self vanished in an instant. Sam let his book fall unheeded to the pavement and broke into a flat-out sprint, desperate to head the child off before she ran into the street. He set his hands on the boot of the nearer car and vaulted over it just as the child emerged, heading directly into the stream of oncoming traffic. Sam didn't think, he just acted. He dove at her, arms outstretched, and thrust her back toward the kerb. A car horn blared and tyres screeched. Something struck him with terrific force; pain exploded in his side as he was sent flying. Dimly he heard screams and shouts and a child's terrified crying. Then he hit the ground and knew no more.


When Sam came back to consciousness, he was aware of pain, pain such as he'd never felt in his life, even that time as a child he fell from an apple tree and broke his arm. Everything swam dizzyingly around him and he thought he might be sick.


"What... what happened?" he said faintly, having no idea if there was even anyone to hear him. He tried to move, but an imperative hand on his shoulder stopped him.


"Lie still, Sam," said a familiar voice. "You've been injured. You mustn't move."


"F-Frodo?" He could just make out a blurred face hovering above him.


"Yes, I'm here."


Sam blinked a few times and his vision began to clear. It was indeed Frodo, kneeling beside him. His face was absolutely livid and his eyes blazing with some intense emotion.


"An ambulance is on the way," Frodo went on. "It should be here in a few minutes."


Memory began to return to Sam: the child, the balloon, the car... "The - the little girl. Is she - is she all right?"


"Thanks to you, yes. She's with her mother, and a Shirriff is taking a statement from her and the driver of the car that hit you."


That had Sam taking note of his surroundings. He was lying on his back in the street, his head pillowed on some folded fabric. Several Shirriffs in their feathered caps were keeping a curious crowd of onlookers at bay with outstretched arms. Another Shirriff stood to one side talking to a middle-aged hobbit, who was wringing his hands and looking distraught. Nearby the mother was holding the child Violet, who clung to her like a climbing vine; several passersby were comforting them, and one of them held the red balloon that had been the cause of it all.


"It weren't his fault," Sam said anxiously. "He couldn't help it."


"I know it wasn't. I saw it happen." Frodo's face worked as if he were struggling for control. His fingers went to Sam's wrist, feeling for his pulse. "Sam, I need to know if you can move your toes."


"I - I think so." Tentatively, Sam wriggled them.


"Good. Now your fingers, please."


Sam did. "It's my left side that hurts most." Which was a gross understatement, for every breath stabbed him like a knife.


"It would do; that's where the car struck you." Again, Frodo's face contorted, but he mastered himself.


"I'm sorry," Sam said. "That you had to see it, I mean. But I'm glad you're here with me, Frodo, so glad..." He coughed and a moan of pain escaped him. He was a nurse and no fool, at least about medical matters. He didn't need Frodo to tell him that he was in a bad way, most likely bleeding internally. "Frodo, if..."


"Hush, Sam. You're going to be all right, I promise." Gently, Frodo used one of his fine embroidered handkerchiefs to wipe the corner of Sam's mouth. The coppery tang of blood was sharp on Sam's tongue. Then Frodo looked up, sharply. "I hear a siren," he said, addressing the nearest Shirriff. "Move these hobbits out of the way - immediately."


"All right you lot, you heard the doctor, move along." The Shirriffs began to shoo the crowd out of the street. As the hobbits shuffled back, Sam saw the Rolls parked a short distance off. The driver's door stood wide, as if Frodo had been in too much of a hurry to shut it behind him.


"You shouldn't ought to have left the door open."


"Oh Sam, whatever am I going to do with you, you incorrigible hobbit?" Perhaps it was the returning blurriness of Sam's vision that made it appear as if Frodo had tears in his eyes.


"You could hold my hand, if you wouldn't mind," Sam said.


"Of course." The heels of his hands were throbbing, scored and abraded where he must have landed on them, but Frodo took his fingers in a warm, firm clasp.


"Thank you," Sam whispered. A shaft of vicious pain throbbed in his side. Sam convulsively gripped Frodo's hand, so hard that he involuntarily winced. "S-Sorry." His voice was a thread of whisper now. "H-Hurts."


Frodo said, "I know, my lad, but you must hold on, just a little longer. The ambulance is almost here. We'll have you at hospital in a jiffy and get you all fixed up." He spoke calmly and with assurance, but his eyes betrayed his worry.


The siren was growing louder and closer every moment, until the ambulance swept into view and pulled up. Two hobbits in hospital uniform jumped out and went round to the back of the vehicle. They quickly unloaded the stretcher on wheels and brought it over to Sam and Frodo.


Sam knew the paramedics, of course, Bert Banks and William Grubb. He'd frequently socialised with them as they were close friends with Tom and Jolly. That they were surprised to see Frodo at the scene of the accident was evident. But when they saw Sam, surprise turned to outright shock and horror.


"Hullo, Bert, William. Reckon you were't expecting to see me," said Sam weakly, with a pitiful attempt at humour.


"Sam Gamgee!" Bert exclaimed, rattled by the unexpected identity of the accident victim and thrown completely out of his professional calm.


"Oh Sam," William said. "Oh Sam."


But Frodo was having none of it. "Get hold of yourself at once, both of you," he snapped at the hobbits. "This is no time for displays of emotion."


"Yes, sir. Begging your pardon, sir," they apologised. "What do we have, Mr. Baggins?" Bert asked, kneeling beside him.


"Internal bleeding - suspected ruptured spleen; the car struck him on his left side and the abdomen is swollen and hard to the touch. Pulse 100. Multiple bruises and contusions, but no broken bones or other serious injuries I could detect. But move him very carefully."


"Yessir."


Frodo released Sam's fingers and stood, stepping back to give the paramedics room to do their job. Sam wished it weren't necessary; somehow he felt stronger with Frodo holding his hand. Bert slid a muscular arm under Sam's shoulders and securely cradled his head, whilst William slid an arm under his knees. Both hobbits supported him around the waist.


"Ready, Sam?" William asked.


Sam nodded.


"All right then, Bert, on three: one, two, three." Moving as one, the two hobbits lifted Sam to their knees and cradled him against their chests, then on another count of three picked him up and seamlessly transferred him to the stretcher. Despite their expertise and care, those seconds were sheer agony for Sam and left him nearly swooning. He was quickly strapped down and Bert and William wheeled the stretcher to the back of the ambulance. As they did, a din broke out as hobbits began to clap and cheer.


"Bless his heart, he's a hero, he is," someone shouted, and others added their voices to the chorus of praise. "He saved that child's life." "I do hope he'll be all right." "Poor lad."


"Do you hear that, Sam?" Bert asked. "You're a hero."


Sam did hear it, but it made him squirm inside. He wasn't a hero and he didn't want to be one. What he wanted - "Frodo," he said with some urgency.


"I'm here, Sam." Frodo bent low so that Sam didn't have to raise his voice. "What is it, my dear?"


"My - my old dad. Will you get word to him? And if aught happens to me..."


"I'll take care of it. Don't fret. But nothing is going to happen to you, Sam. You're a strong, healthy hobbit." He straightened. "Now let Bert and William do their job."


A sudden fear filled Sam. When the ambulance took him away, would Frodo stay behind? "Are you going to leave me?"


"Of course not. I'm riding in the ambulance with you. One of the Shirriffs will be following in the Rolls."


"H-his lucky day," Sam said.


"Indeed." And Frodo smiled, a strained smile, but a smile nonetheless.


Bert and William lifted the stretcher into the back of the ambulance and as promised Frodo climbed in after. As soon as the stretcher was made fast, William closed the doors, went round to the front and climbed in the driver's seat. He switched on the siren and the ambulance sped away.


Frodo and Bert set to work on Sam, putting an oxygen mask over his face, a blood pressure cuff on his arm and attaching a saline drip. Unable to speak, Sam fixed his eyes on Frodo, using him as an anchor to keep his wits about him.


"BP 70 over 40," murmured Frodo. "Pulse 120."


"William radioed ahead. They'll be ready for him, sir."


"They had better be." Frodo sounded grim.


Despite his best efforts, Sam found himself fading, objects around him merging into a featureless blur, sounds oddly muffled. I'm going into shock, he thought dimly, but he couldn't bring himself to mind. It was nice, simply floating, without a single care...


Sam roused a little when they got to the hospital and things started moving very fast. He felt like a leaf in a gutter on a rainy day, swept away by circumstances beyond his control, swirling and twirling this way and that. Pounding feet, voices shouting 'Out of the way', lights flashing overhead as the stretcher was pushed at a run through the corridors. Every step of the way Frodo was with him, holding Sam's hand again, until they reached the doors of the operating theatre.


"Mr. Baggins, sir, you can't enter."


"Of course. I'll go and scrub in."


Please stay, Sam wanted to beg, but he was swept off again, into surgery. Doctors and nurses in scrubs milled around him. His clothes were cut away, a gown draped over him, a cap put over his hair. Monitors were attached; they began to hiss and beep, the sounds familiar and oddly comforting. He'd scrubbed in at so many surgeries that he understood exactly what was happening why. And yet, it might be happening to someone else, some other Sam Gamgee. How queer, he thought.


"Will you do the honours, Frodo?" It was the Chief of Surgery, Mr. Hornblower.


Bright, bright blue eyes swam into focus as Frodo bent over him. "I'm going to administer your anaesthetic, Sam." He placed the mask over Sam's face. "Now breathe and count down from ten to one."


Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five... For the second time that day, but this time with Frodo's fair face the last thing he saw, perhaps the last thing he would ever see - and if it were to be so, he was glad - Sam knew no more.


~*~


Sam woke in recovery, groggy, nauseous, and truly understanding for the first time how his patients felt when they awoke from anaesthesia. His body was one giant ache from head to toes, his mouth was parched and his throat felt raw. But he'd come through his surgery and he was alive, which was cause for celebration - or would be, when he felt up to it. And that didn't seem like it would be anytime soon.


Aster Goldworthy, Matron of the adult surgical ward, was adjusting one of Sam's drips. She glanced down at him and said, "Ah, you're awake. Right on schedule, too." She gave him an understanding smile. "I've just started your morphine, Sam."


"He's awake?" A hobbit who had been sitting in a chair by Sam's bed jumped up. It was Rosie. "Oh Sam," she said, taking his hand, now heavily bandaged, between her own. Her eyes were red and swollen and tears were running down her cheeks.


"Don't cry, Rosie," Sam said, or rather croaked, his voice hoarse as a crow's from being intubated.


"I'm not crying," Rosie lied, hiccoughing, and hastily wiped away the tears with her sleeve. "Are you thirsty, Sam?" she asked. Sam nodded, and Rosie took a few ice chips from a paper cup and placed them between his lips.


The light blue curtains had been pulled closed around Sam's bed. Matron Goldworthy poked her head between them and called softly, "He's awake, sir."


The curtains parted, and Mr. Hornblower stepped through. He was accompanied by Matron Sackville, but to Sam's disappointment Frodo was not with them.


Mr. Hornblower assessed him with the keen-eyed, comprehensive glance of the experienced surgeon. "I expect you're feeling pretty rough right now, Sam."


"Like I've been run over by a lorry, sir." Which wasn't far from the truth, Sam thought with grim humour.


The surgeon nodded. "We're taking care of that, but you're to let the nurses know if the amount of painkiller isn't adequate. No toughing it out, all right?" Without waiting for a reply he went on, "Now, I did a little tidying up inside you whilst you were under. That was quite a blow you took, and not surprisingly, considering where you were hit, it ruptured your spleen. But I'm happy to say that the splenectomy went splendidly, without any complications. You've cracked three ribs and you're going to look very colourful for a while, until your bruises fade, but we couldn't find any other significant injury." Mr. Hornblower smiled down at him. "If all goes well, you'll be out of hospital in a week, Sam, and back to work in about eight weeks. But for now, you know the drill as well as anyone: rest, heal and try not to worry about anything. We'll move you to a private room in a few hours."


"Yes, sir," Sam whispered. "Thank you."


But Mr. Hornblower shook his head emphatically at this. "Any thanks are entirely owed to you. A child might have lost her life today if it weren't for your selfless bravery. You are in every way a credit to this hospital, Nurse Gamgee, and I'm honoured to call you a colleague of mine."


With that, the surgeon departed, leaving Sam flustered and embarrassed. Imagine the Chief of Surgery saying such things to him! And Matron Sackville standing there with actual tears standing in her eyes and looking more emotional than Sam had ever seen her.


"I can only echo Mr. Hornblower's comments, Sam," Matron said, and sniffed. "But what you need now is rest. Nurse Cotton, come with me. Leave Matron Goldworthy to tend to Sam. Aster, you'll call me if there's the slightest need?"


"Of course, Lobelia."


"I'll see you later, Sam," Rosie said, stooping to kiss Sam very gently on the cheek. "I'm so very glad you didn't..." She choked up, and as if a queer day was determined to act even queerer, Matron put a consoling arm around Rosie's shaking shoulders and led her away, saying, "Come along to my office, Rosie, and I'll make you a nice cup of tea."


When they were gone, Sam closed his eyes, utterly wrung out. Mr. Hornblower and Matron were right: he needed rest. The morphine was starting to take effect, dulling his pain, and he had that sensation of floating again, the leaf swirling in a rain-swept gutter. So he let himself go, into the healing embrace of sleep.


He barely roused when he was transferred out of recovery, the rattle and rumble of wheels and the flash of bright lights overhead as his trolley was pushed along the corridors seeming dream-like in his heavily drugged state. Once settled in his room and hooked up to a cornucopia of monitors, Sam dozed, only vaguely aware of the hobbits working soft-footed and soft-voiced around him as time passed: Matron Goldworthy and the other surgical nurses, Mr. Hornblower, Matron Sackville and Rosie. But the painkiller could not dull a constant ache of awareness that Frodo was not among them.


Snatches of quiet conversation drifted to his ears: "More flowers. I don't know where we're going to put them all." "The reporter from the Herald is requesting another update, sir." "Tom says every chair in the waiting room is full." He couldn't make sense of it, but laced with the customary hospital smell was the scent of flowers, and during his brief moments of wakefulness he could see them all around, great masses of colour at odds with the bland, utilitarian decor.


What the hour was Sam had no idea, when he became aware of a stirring in the room, a sense of activity beyond the accustomed comings and goings of the nurses. Something was happening, but what? He soon found out.


"Are you all right, Mr. Gamgee?" said Frodo.


"'Tis a shock, I'll not deny it, but it could have been a worse one, Mr. Baggins. I'll do."


Sam wondered if he were hallucinating. It sounded exactly like his father. But how was that possible? He didn't drive, and as Sam well knew, it took long, tedious hours to travel by bus from Gamwich to Long Cleeve. He opened his eyes to see his father and Frodo standing at the foot of the bed.


"Dad?" Sam asked in a wondering voice. "Is it really you?"


"Aye, Sam-lad, it's me." His father came round to his side. Fear and worry had deepened the lines in his weather beaten face and his eyes were suspiciously bright.


"But how did you get here?"


It was Frodo who answered him. "You asked me to let your father know what happened, and as I didn't like to give him such news over the phone and I was certain he'd want to be with you as soon as possible, I drove down and fetched him."


As seemed to happen so often when it involved Frodo, Sam was left gobsmacked and robbed of speech. Frodo had done that for him? Driven all the way to Gamwich and back? He couldn't generate enough moisture in his eyes to cry, but he was crying in his heart, with love and gratitude. Frodo's clothes were rumpled and he looked exhausted, but never had he appeared more beautiful in Sam's eyes.


"I'm right grateful to Mr. Baggins. I'd have been worriting myself sick otherwise," Hamfast said gruffly.


"As I told you, Mr. Gamgee, absolutely no thanks are necessary," Frodo said, and then added, "I'll go get us both a cup of tea, shall I?" And Sam knew that he wanted to give them time alone together.


When he'd gone, Hamfast said, "Stubborner than any mule is your Mr. Baggins, Sam. Won't accept as much as a simple 'thank-ee', not nohow."


He's not my Mr. Baggins, Sam thought, but he smiled weakly at his dad's description of Frodo. "He won't because that's the kind of hobbit he is, Dad. There's none better in the Shire."


"Nay. I'm a-looking at a better right this very minute as is. Sam-lad, Mr. Baggins told me what happened, and I'm proud of you, son. And I reckon..." Hamfast cleared his throat. "I reckon your mum is, too."


It turned out that Sam did have just enough moisture in his eyes to shed a few tears, but they were healing tears, and he fell back asleep with his father tenderly cradling one of his bandaged hands between his own.


When next Sam woke, he was stronger and more aware of his surroundings. A glance out the round window to his right showed it was full dark, but beyond that he was flummoxed. How long had he been sleeping?


"What's the time?" he wondered aloud, and was pleased that his voice came out sounding less like a crow and more like himself.


"Twenty past four." Frodo got up from a chair and smiled down at him. "How are you feeling, Sam?"


"Better," Sam replied. "Though I'm not about to get up on a table and dance a jig."


Frodo laughed. "I hope not."


"You had better not," Iris Sandheaver warned him. She was the night duty nurse now in charge of Sam's care. Though Sam didn't work with her, she had a reputation as a first-class nurse, and also a bit of a dragon. She brought him a cup with a long straw. "Have a few sips of water, Sam. Only a few, mind."


He obediently drank, aware that Frodo was watching him like a hawk, assessing him and his condition every second. The tepid water soothed the soreness in his throat and he could have kept on drinking. If nothing else, the experience was teaching him how it felt to be on the other side of the equation, so to speak, and maybe that was no bad thing. "Where's my dad?" he asked Frodo when Iris took the cup away.


"I sent him off a little while ago to get some rest. Not willingly - he is a typical Gamgee, I've discovered. Stubborner than any mule."


"He said the exact same thing about you," Sam pointed out, and Frodo laughed again. "But where did you send him off to?"


"I can tell you're feeling better: you are full of questions. He is, as am I, staying with my Aunt Lobelia." Frodo looked consideringly at Sam, who was once more rendered mute with astonishment. "My dear Sam, when will you realise that there is very little anyone here would not do for you? And not only because you saved that child's life. You are very greatly loved and respected."


Sam blushed. "I don't know why."


"Of course you don't. And that is one of the reasons."


"No offence, Frodo, but that don't make sense."


Frodo got that funny look again. "Well, it wouldn't, to you. Now you mustn't tire yourself with talking. Nurse Sandheaver is about to give me a ticking off and rightly so. I'm a doctor and ought to know better."


"So you should, sir," Iris said, but the corners of her mouth were twitching. She was no more immune to Frodo's charm than anyone else, seemingly.


But in truth, Sam was fading fast. 'Better' was definitely a relative term. He couldn't drop off again just yet, though, not without telling Frodo how grateful he was for everything he'd done.


Frodo forestalled him. "I can see the words 'thank you' hovering on your lips. Leave them there, please."


With difficulty he did. "At least promise you'll get some rest before you leave for Bag End?" he asked anxiously. "You've been up all night because of me."


The funny look reappeared, stronger than before. "How you do try my patience sometimes, Sam," he said obscurely. "But I'm not returning to Bag End just yet. I'm afraid you are going to have to put up with my presence for a while longer. The fact is, Sam, that I don't trust you. The minute my back is turned, you'll be in the staff kitchenette cooking a fry-up or baking muffins or what-not for everyone, and then insist on doing the washing up, too. You need someone to keep an eye on you."


Iris, busy making notes in Sam's chart, let out a snort of laughter. But Sam wasn't inclined to laugh. His heart was too overcome with relief and joy. Frodo was staying in Long Cleeve - for him. He wouldn't have to say good-bye to Frodo for yet a little while longer. Oh, he ought tell Frodo that it wasn't necessary, that it wasn't right for him to go changing his plans just for Sam.


But he didn't.


~*~


Over the next few days, Sam slowly grew stronger. The pain began to lessen even as his panoply of bruises turned every colour of the rainbow. He graduated from a liquid diet to soft foods, though he decided that if he never tasted another pudding or flavoured gelatin again, it would be far too soon.


With assistance from the nurses or Rosie or his holemates, one or the other of whom was usually on hand during visiting hours, he was allowed out of bed for short walks, venturing only as far as the bathroom to start with, but progressing to jaunts along the hallway. If Sam was embarrassed by how weak and wobbly his legs felt, that was nothing to how the outpouring of kindness he received made him feel. Flowers, balloons, get well cards and fluffy bears, some from total strangers who'd read about his 'heroic rescue of young Violet Whitfoot at the risk of his own life' (as the reporter from the Long Cleeve Herald put it) filled his room until it rivalled the hospital gift shop. A huge bouquet of flowers arrived from Paladin and Tina, along with a purple and orange playdough oliphaunt and a construction paper card from Pippin, who not unexpectedly wrote that he wanted to compare scars with Sam next time they met and see whose was 'gnarlier'.


Rosie brought him a copy of the Herald article, which sported a banner headline that read Hero Hobbit! Among the fulsome, florid prose of the reporter were quotes from Rufus Tunnelly, the driver of the car that hit Sam, ('It all happened so fast, and to be honest, I was afraid I'd killed him. I'm ever so glad he's going to be all right - such a brave young hobbit.') and from Myrtle Whitfoot, Violet's mother ('My husband and I can never thank him properly for saving our baby's life. Sam Gamgee will always be our hero.')


"Put it away, Rosie, do," Sam begged, and would have squirmed with embarrassment as she read the article aloud if his sore ribs and stomach would have allowed it, but his father said, "Don't mind Samwise, Rosie. Keep reading, lass." When she was done, Hamfast took the paper from her, carefully clipped out the article with a pair of scissors, folded it and tucked it away inside his jacket. Sam knew it would stay there, to be taken out time and time again to be read to his friends at the pub.


Threats about keeping an eye on Sam to the contrary, Frodo came and went during the day, usually taking a careful look at him, examining his chart, and going off again. What he was up to beyond assisting the newly returned Mr. Brockhouse in surgery, Sam had no idea, but as he feared it might involve Merry Brandybuck, he didn't ask. But Frodo sat with Sam each night, long after visiting hours were over and Sam's father had gone back to Matron's hole. When Frodo found time to sleep was anyone's guess, but Sam's attempts to get him to see sense and stop burning the candle at both ends were, not unexpectedly, an abysmal failure.


And truthfully, it was nice to have Frodo there in the quiet hours when no one else was around save Iris Sandheaver. Sam's sense of time was turned topsy-turvy, and he was often wakeful during the night. It would have been terribly lonely and boring, with nothing to do but lie there listening to the monitors beep and hiss whilst the hands on the clock opposite his bed went round with excruciating slowness.


With Frodo there, however, it was far from lonely or boring. Whilst he wouldn't go so far as to say it was worth getting hit by a car to keep Frodo in Long Cleeve, Frodo's presence helped Sam to forget his aches and pains. Frodo never let him talk much, but instead he did the talking, filling Sam in on the different cases he and Mr. Brockhouse had in surgery, or relaying get well messages from various and sundry hobbits, including Mrs. Rumble and Rodger Twofoot. He told Sam stories about his Uncle Bilbo or other adventures of that scamp Pippin. Sometimes he sat and perused medical journals whilst Sam dozed, or read aloud snippets of articles that he thought Sam would find interesting. It felt intimate, as if they were cocooned in their own little world. At such times, Sam couldn't help those foolish wishes from resurrecting themselves, and picture the two of them in quite a different setting: sitting together by the fire in the Bag End parlour of an evening after the children had been put to bed.


I'm hopeless, I am, Sam thought. He's just being a good friend, is all.


~*~


On the Wednesday night, Frodo brought Sam an unexpected surprise.


"I thought you might like to have this back, Sam," Frodo said, holding up the book on great Shire gardens that Sam had dropped on the pavement - what seemed like months ago now. It was a little dented in one corner, but otherwise was in far better shape than its owner.


"My book," Sam exclaimed, delighted. In the immediate aftermath of the accident, he hadn't given the book a single thought, but later he'd remembered it and assumed it was gone for good, picked up by a passer-by. He couldn't regret the choice he'd made, yet it had been a gift from Frodo, and if for no other reason than that it was dear to him.


He held out his hands, only lightly bandaged now, but Frodo shook his head. "Too heavy, my lad," he said. He went on, "Someone found it lying on the pavement and turned it in to the Shirriffs, who contacted me, bless them. Would you like to look at the chapter on Bag End?"


"Yes, please. I never had a chance to read it."


Frodo lowered the metal railing on the side of the hospital bed and perched his hip on the edge of the mattress. Iris Sandheaver watched him with a lifted eyebrow, no doubt considering Frodo's behaviour unbecoming an eminent consultant; but Sam had no objection whatsoever. Frodo opened the book on his lap and flipped through the glossy pages until he reached chapter ten, which said in elegant curly black letters, 'Bag End - Hobbiton, the West Farthing'. The very first photo, of the smial's front porch with the flowering clematis twining about its wooden pillars, and flanked on either side by masses of blooming lavender, multicoloured nasturtiums, and coral-pink roses, caused Sam's heart to give a queer little lurch.


For a delightful half-hour Sam was transported straight out of the hospital and into another world, one where the aches and pains of his healing body didn't exist. Bending his curly head over the book, he lost himself in the beauty of Bag End, exclaiming in excitement when he recognised this or that flower bed, tree or bush. He laughed, and then winced (as it still hurt to laugh - and sneeze and cough), at a photo of a scowling Rodger Twofoot leaning on a hoe in the vegetable garden - Sam could hear Pippin's voice in his mind saying, 'That's Mr. Twofoot. He's cranky.'


"I'm afraid Rodger isn't much of a one for having his photo taken," Frodo said, grinning. "And now we come to the final photo - saving the worst for last. I wasn't particularly keen to be photographed myself. I look utterly ridiculous, like a caricature of a country squire. I shudder to imagine what Bilbo would say if he could see it. You must promise not to laugh, Sam."


"As if I would," Sam protested, and the very last thing he felt like doing when Frodo flipped the page was laughing. A soft 'oh' escaped Sam when he saw the photo, an 'oh' of heartfelt admiration. The photo showed Frodo standing on the path leading to the front door. He was dressed casually in brown trousers and a brown jacket over a white shirt and brown velvet waistcoat, and he held a pipe in his right hand, whilst the left was tucked casually into the pocket of his trousers. He looked relaxed and at ease and breathtakingly handsome. Utterly ridiculous? Was Frodo mad?


Sam said, "I don't know what hobbit you're looking at, Frodo, but it's not the same one I am."


"Hmph," was Frodo's response, but Sam thought he was secretly pleased.


Sam could have lingered over the photograph for many minutes, but Frodo said, "I'm afraid it's time to close the book, Sam. I need to leave and you need to rest." He suited action to words, shutting the cover firmly, and got up. He set the book down on the chair, and then replaced the metal railing on Sam's bed. Resting one shapely hand on it, he smiled at Sam and said, "You are making a splendid recovery, you know. It's not for me to say, of course, as Mr. Hornblower is your surgeon, but all the signs point to you being discharged on Saturday."


"I can't wait, and that's a fact," Sam replied with feeling. "I like working in a hospital right fine, but I don't fancy being a patient in one, not nohow."


"I know, Sam," Frodo said sympathetically, "and I don't blame you one bit. But the end is in sight now, and your father will be glad to have you staying with him whilst you recover."


"He'll be glad to show me off like a prize-winning pig at a farthing fair," Sam grumbled. Now that his son was on the mend, Hamfast Gamgee was rather enjoying hearing Sam called a hero by all and sundry.


Frodo raised his eyebrows at Sam's statement. "That doesn't sound like my sunny-natured Samwise speaking," he remarked. "By which I can tell that you are overtired and I have overstayed my welcome. Go to sleep, Sam, and I'll see you later."


"You mean in a few hours, and when you catch so much as a single wink of sleep, I should like to know, Frodo Baggins," Sam said crossly, and didn't care how childish he sounded.


"Definitely not my sunny-natured Samwise." Frodo leaned down and kissed Sam on the brow. He pulled back only a little ways and stared into Sam's eyes, his own unreadable. Then he gently touched Sam's bruised cheek and said, "Sleep well, Sam." He straightened, bid Iris Sandheaver good-night, and went away.


Sam caught Iris eyeing him speculatively. He supposed his feelings for Frodo were no secret to Iris, who had seen them together now for five nights running. Pretending not to notice, though his cheeks felt rather hot, Sam shut his eyes, and with the soft press of Frodo's lips lingering on his skin, fell fast asleep.


Hamfast Gamgee arrived, as he did every day, right at the start of visiting hours. But after greeting Sam with his usual gruff concern and quizzing Matron Goldworthy closely about his son's condition, he said, "Well, Sam-lad, I have a bit of news: I'm off home today."


"You are?" Sam said in surprise. It had been settled (if one could use the word; Frodo had steam-rolled right over any discussion, particularly if it began with 'but') that Frodo would drive them both to Gamwich on Saturday after Sam was discharged.


"Aye. You're well enough now that I can leave with an easy mind, and there's things need arranging at home for you, to make sure you're comfortable-like," he said, in a brook-no-nonsense voice.


"How will you get there?" Sam asked.


"Mr. Frodo is going to drive me."


"But Dad," Sam began uneasily, fearing that they were taking gross advantage of Frodo's good nature by making him drive to Gamwich and back yet again.


"Lad, if there's one thing I've learnt this past week," Hamfast said, "it's that there's no use in arguing with Frodo Baggins when he's got the bit between his teeth. Might as well try and stop the sun from coming up."


Which, coming from Hamfast Gamgee, was, Sam thought, quite a statement. His father had, in fact, been extremely cagey on the topic of Frodo whenever Sam asked him how they were getting on. But there was no doubting that he had the highest possible opinion of Frodo, and more than once he'd called him 'a real gentlehobbit, one of the old sort, if you take my meaning'.


His father's departure marked a significant moment in Sam's recovery, for it was the moment when Sam started to believe that his hospital stay was finite after all. At times, though never when Frodo was with him, it felt endless and he wondered if he would ever stop being a patient or a hero and go back to being plain Sam Gamgee, paediatric surgical nurse.


Sam wasn't quite done with being a hero just yet, however, as some special visitors showed him that very afternoon.


The first of these was Rufus Tunnelly, the driver of the car that had hit Sam. Mr. Tunnelly hovered in the doorway, looking both anxious and terrified, as if he feared that Sam might blame him for his injuries and send him packing. Twisting a brown felt hat between tense hands, he moved hesitantly forward, and then burst out almost tearfully, "O, Mr. Gamgee, I don't rightly know what to say except I'm sorry for what I done. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me."


"Forgive you?" Sam said, his tender heart wrung with pity for the hobbit's distress. "There's naught to forgive you for. It weren't your fault, none of it. Now give set your hat and coat down, come sit by me and we'll have a nice coze."


Mr. Tunnelly did as Sam bid, Rosie brought him tea and biscuits, and he departed an hour later a much relieved hobbit.


Barely an hour later it was the Whitfoots, father, mother and daughter, who arrived. They came bearing an enormous fruit basket, and young Violet held a 'Get Well' balloon for Sam - not red, thankfully. Sam wasn't eager to set eyes on any more red balloons any time soon. They also came bearing such profuse thanks that Sam turned redder than any balloon. Myrtle Whitfoot took his hand, thankfully free now of bandages, and wept over it, whilst Bob Whitfoot declared in a choked up voice that if Violet ever had a baby brother, he would be named Samwise in Sam's honour.


Violet was, as hobbit-children that age often were, shy of strangers, and the hospital atmosphere and her mother's tears rendered her even more so. She clung to her father's trouser-leg, hiding her face, but Sam, who was always more comfortable when he had a job of work to do, immediately set about coaxing her out of her bashfulness. He was so successful that in short order Violet was sitting cross-legged on the end of the bed, chatting away to him like a magpie whilst she sipped on an orange squash.


Before they left, the Whitfoots asked Sam if, when he was well again, he would do them the honour of joining them for a family dinner one evening. "For, my dear Sam," Myrtle said emotionally, "we consider you as a member of our family now, and always will." Sam blushed, but willingly agreed, and so they parted for the present.


Sam was eager to tell Frodo all about the visits from Mr. Tunnelly and the Whitfoots, but to his disappointment Frodo did not come that night. Just as Sam was starting to fret in earnest, worrying that something had happened to him, Iris came into his room with a message from Frodo, who had phoned to say that he was stopping over at Bag End, but would be back in Long Cleeve on Saturday morning to drive Sam down to Gamwich.


It was undeniably a letdown, and Sam felt Frodo's absence acutely, more than he would have thought possible. The night crawled past with excruciating slowness, until at last the lightening sky outside the window heralded the arrival of dawn, and the bustle of morning rounds began. He only wished he was part of that bustle, meeting with Rosie and Frodo in Matron's office to discuss the day's surgery roster, hoping Frodo would enjoy what he'd baked that morning.


Mr. Hornblower arrived shortly before seven, accompanied by the usual complement of surgical interns, circling him like moons around a planet. After reviewing Sam's chart and examining his incision (which was healing perfectly and unlikely to be nearly gnarly enough to suit Pippin), he declared himself well pleased with his patient's progress.


"Barring a very unlikely setback, you can be discharged tomorrow, Sam," he said, smiling. "Your recovery has been little short of textbook perfect, I'm happy to say."


As the good news spread, the atmosphere in Sam's room turned party-like, with hobbits crowding in to celebrate. How long the impromptu party would have gone on was anybody's guess, but Matron Goldworthy put an end to it before it spiralled out of control - just as Milo and Nick were leading Rosie and Poppy Banks into a high-spirited (and possibly ill-advised) Springle-ring in the hallway outside. Eventually things settled down, but Sam couldn't stop grinning. Of course he still had a lot of healing to do, and he had no doubt that he was soon going to get tired of being told to take it easy, but it would be much pleasanter to recuperate at home. And he had the drive down to Gamwich with Frodo in the Rolls to look forward to as well - a treat that he felt he'd definitely earned.


Celebratory parties notwithstanding, Sam was on tenterhooks next morning as he waited for Mr. Hornblower.


"Can't you just put me in the wheelchair and start pushing?" he joked to Rosie, who was there to share the exciting moment with him.


Rosie giggled. "Oh Sam, but honestly I don't think you need worry. You may look a little colourful, but that won't bother Mr. Hornblower - or Frodo, for that matter," she added slyly.


"Rosie!" Sam said, blushing, and of course Mr. Hornblower chose that precise moment to stride into the room, accompanied Matron Sackville, Matron Goldworthy, and Frodo. Sam blushed harder when he set eyes on Frodo, but embarrassment was secondary to the joy the mere sight of him brought.


Frodo came straight to Sam and took his hand between his own. His serious, searching gaze held Sam immobile whilst he studied him, until he relaxed into a smile and said, "Well, Sam, are you ready to go home?"


"I've never been readier for anything," Sam said, but he thought, But I'd go anywhere with you. Frodo's smile deepened, and Sam felt certain that his mind had been read again.


But Mr. Hornblower seemed in no hurry whilst he studied Sam's chart from the previous night. He was frowning slightly, and Sam unconsciously clutched at Frodo's hand, fearing the worst. And then, just as Sam was certain Mr. Hornblower had discovered that unlikely setback after all, he looked up and said with a smile, "You can get dressed, Sam."


Rosie burst into tears of joy. Sam almost did himself, but he didn't want to waste a single second. "Help me out of this bed, Frodo," he said, flinging back the light blanket covering him to the waist. "And someone hand me my clothes."


His holemates had brought Sam a change of clothing the previous day, and he couldn't wait to exchange his loathed hospital gown for comfortable twill trousers, a soft cotton shirt and his favourite brown woollen jumper. Matron Goldworthy helped him into the bathroom and left him to it. Sam was surprised at how loose the waistband of the trousers now was. In fact, taking a good long look at himself in the mirror (which he had hitherto tried very hard not to do because of the aforementioned colourful bruises), he discovered a noticeably thinner Sam Gamgee looking back. I must have dropped at least half a stone,, he thought, amazed. Picturing Frodo's sylphlike form in his mind, he decided it was no bad thing, but he certainly wouldn't recommend this particular weight-loss scheme to anyone.


When Sam emerged from the bathroom, Frodo was there to guide his footsteps to the waiting wheelchair. It wasn't really necessary, for Sam could walk quite well by himself now, if only for short distances, but with Frodo's arm snugly around his shoulders and his warm hand cupping Sam's elbow, Sam wasn't about to complain. When he was seated, Sam looked up at the three hobbits who had been most responsible for his care, Mr. Hornblower, Matron Goldworthy and Iris Sandheaver. Blinking back sudden tears he said, "I can't never thank you enough for all you've done for me, but I want you to know how grateful I am and always will be."


Mr. Hornblower said, "Ah, but you've already given us the best possible thanks, Sam: you are on the road to a full recovery." But then he added, his eyes twinkling, "However, baked goods are always most welcome."


Sam grinned as he shook the surgeon's hand. "I'll keep that in mind, sir." He looked at Matron Sackville next and said, "Thank you for giving my old dad someplace to stay, Matron. It was kind of you, and that's a fact. And I promise not to be gone any longer than I can help."


"You will be gone precisely as long as you are meant to be," she replied in typical fashion, but then a smile lightened her dour countenance and she added, "However long it is, we'll miss you, Sam."


Rosie picked up a large cardboard box filled with the numerous gifts Sam had received, and Frodo released the wheel brakes on the chair. "All right, Sam?" he asked, taking hold of the wheelchair's handles. Without waiting for a reply, he started pushing. They were off.


As they made their way along the corridors toward the front entrance of the hospital, doctors, nurses and orderlies they passed congratulated Sam and wished him a speedy recovery and an equally speedy return to work. Others joined them so that Sam had quite an entourage when they arrived at the entrance. Outside, Sam could see the gleaming silver Rolls parked and waiting at the kerb, and his heart soared.


"I can walk the rest of the way," Sam said firmly when Frodo brought the wheelchair to a stop by the doors. "I'm going to leave using my own two feet."


"Very well," Frodo said, and added in a low voice that only Sam could hear, "Stubborn Gamgee."


"Takes one to know one," retorted Sam.


As he got to his feet, hobbits applauded him. Blushing furiously Sam walked, slowly it was true, through the door Frodo held open for him and outside onto the pavement. He tilted his face up gratefully to the warmth of the morning sun and said, "Oh, but I am glad to be alive. Isn't the world a beautiful place?"


"It is indeed," Frodo softly agreed, and Sam could feel those blue eyes on his face, with a touch as beneficent as the sun's.


Frodo took the box from Rosie and set it on the back seat of the Rolls. Rosie wrapped her arms carefully around Sam in a farewell hug and said, "Oh, I am going to miss you so much, Sam."


"I'll miss you, too, Rosie." Sam patted her clumsily on the back. "You'll have to come for a visit, that's all there is to it."


Rosie pulled back, smiled tremulously and said, "Wild ponies couldn't keep me away." She kissed him on the cheek. "Now go on, climb into that very posh car of Mr. Baggins and let him sweep you away."


Nothing loathe, Sam did. Pride was all well and good, but now he needed to sit down, and he sank gratefully into the welcoming embrace of the Rolls's comfortable leather seat. Frodo came round to the driver's side and got in. The powerful engine purred to life and they pulled away. Sam turned his head and looked out the back window. He waved to Rosie and the rest of the hobbits until the car rounded a curve in the driveway and they were lost to view.


Sam didn't say anything at first, content to sit and catch his breath.


"Tired, Sam?" Frodo asked after a time, glancing at him.


"A little, but I'm all right." He grinned. "Better than all right, now I'm not sitting in a hospital bed."


"You will, however, have to take things very easy for the next few weeks," Frodo cautioned. "Being out of hospital doesn't mean you're better."


Sam sighed. "I thought I wouldn't be hearing that lecture until I got home and my dad started in on me."


Frodo laughed. "I promise to keep the reminders to a minimum then."


"I'd appreciate that." Sam gazed out the window at the hobbit-holes flashing past, and suddenly he frowned. "Frodo, we're going the wrong way. You should have taken a right at the last crossroads."


"You'd be correct if we were going to Gamwich, but as it happens we're not."


Sam snapped his head around and stared at Frodo. "What do you mean 'we're not'?"


"I mean I'm kidnapping you," said Frodo, very cheerfully.


"You're what?"


"Kidnapping you. Spiriting you off. Sweeping you away, to borrow Rosie's words. But don't worry, your father knows all about it; in fact, he's waiting for us at Bag End."


"My dad's at Bag End?" Sam repeated in astonishment.


With startling abruptness Frodo pulled over to the kerb and parked the Rolls. He unfastened his seat belt and faced Sam. His handsome face was more serious than Sam had ever seen it. "Sam, I am a fool," he said.


"No, you're not," Sam replied indignantly.


"Oh, but I am, and your father, Aunt Lobelia and Rosie, not to mention your holemates, agree with me. Indeed, they made it plain to me exactly how much of a fool I am and that I had better do something about it forthwith. And so I am."


Sam was back to being baffled and bewildered. What did his dad and Matron, not to mention Rosie and his holemates, have to do with anything? "I don't understand," he said.


"Don't you?" Frodo reached across the console and took Sam's healing hands in his. A rueful look came into his eyes. "Sam, I owe you such an apology. I bungled my marriage proposal to you so badly that it's a wonder you're still speaking to me."


Sam couldn't argue with that, so he didn't try. "You sounded like old Noakes in the hardware shop in Gamwich, trying to sell me a new faucet for the kitchen sink," he said severely. "Marriage isn't a business transaction, leastways not to me it's not."


The rueful look deepened. "You're absolutely right, Sam, and I am very sorry. But if you want to know the truth, I was afraid."


"Afraid of what?" Sam asked.


"Of having my heart rejected. I couldn't have borne it, Sam." Looking deep into Sam's eyes Frodo went on, "Because I love you. I fell in love with you the moment our eyes met in the operating theatre that first day. But it appeared that you were wedded to your work and set on taking Aunt Lobelia's job when she retired. So offering my love as inducement to marry me seemed hopeless. But I thought that perhaps Bag End and its garden would be enough to convince you to do so, and then I could set about winning your love." Frodo grimaced. "It was a totally absurd scheme, I see that now, but I was on the verge of desperation, what with my stay in Long Cleeve coming to an end, and then Merry showing up time and again to interfere with my plans to court you."


Sam struggled to gather his wits, scattered like leaves in a wind gust by the revelation that Frodo loved him and had from the start. Finally he said simply, "You never had to win my love, Frodo. It's been yours all along. You weren't the only one who fell in love that day."


"Then it was the same for you?" Frodo asked in a wondering voice. "Oh Sam, if only I'd been braver and told you the truth."


"Instead of making me think you wanted to marry me because I can cook and garden and I'm good with children?" Sam said wryly.


"Sam, if I led you to believe that, even for an instant, then I bungled matters worse than I thought," Frodo said, gripping Sam's hands more tightly. "For though I admire you for those things, I proposed to you because I love you - and only you."


"Oh Frodo." Tears burned in Sam's eyes. "But what about Merry? Rosie told me you came to Long Cleeve because a hobbit had broken your heart. I thought it was him."


"Rosie was wrong," Frodo replied calmly. "I didn't come to Long Cleeve because Merry or anyone else broke my heart. It's true that I jumped at the chance when my aunt asked, but only because I wanted to put some distance between me and Merry, in hopes that his infatuation with me would die a natural death and it wouldn't be necessary to tread on his feelings. Hobbits his age are vulnerable to hurt, and whilst he's behaved very badly, he's young and rather spoilt." He sighed. "Unfortunately my plan backfired, and it only made him jealous and suspicious. He knows me well, for we have been close since he was a child, and when he came to Long Cleeve, it was clear that he sensed I had feelings for someone. Then he showed up at Bag End, and I was concerned that he might put two and two together and figure out that it was you I'd fallen in love with. I tried to downplay your presence there, but after his abominable rudeness to you, I decided to have it out with him that night. I fear he is very angry at me and we parted in bitterness, but with time I hope that he will forgive me and we can go back to being friends."


"Oh Frodo," Sam said again, but it was a very different 'Oh Frodo'. Everything Frodo had said and done that night had been to protect Sam. He felt humbled and chastened. "I'm that ashamed. I overheard some of the things you said to Merry in your study, not meaning to, mind you, but, well, I thought you meant them." He hung his head. "I should have had more faith in you."


Fingers slid under his chin and gently but insistently forced it up until he met Frodo's gaze. Frodo didn't look upset or disappointed at all. "Sam, there's no need to be ashamed. It seems we've both done our share of misunderstanding the other. Let's put it all behind us, shall we, and start again?"


"I'd like that," Sam said with a tremulous smile.


"Then let us seal our bargain in the approved manner." Frodo's fingers moved, curling at the nape of Sam's neck, whilst he leaned further in to capture Sam's mouth in a tender kiss. He drew back far too soon for Sam's liking. "My beloved Sam," he whispered. "When I think how I almost lost you..."


Sam stopped Frodo's words with a finger across his lips. "You mustn't think about it anymore, Frodo. I'm only sorry you had to see any of it."


Frodo kissed Sam's finger then gently drew it away. "I was looking for you, you know. That's why I was there. Rosie had a long talk with me, Sam, and she set me straight about a number of things, the main one being your feelings for me. After ticking me off roundly, as I deserved, she assured me that you loved me, and that determined me not to leave Long Cleeve without taking you out again and confessing my love."


"And after I told her not to interfere," Sam said indignantly.


"Be glad she did, Sam. I owe her more than I can express, for I might not have had the courage to try my luck a second time otherwise. But then the accident happened and I was terrified that I'd left it too late through my cowardice and stupidity." A single shining tear slid down Frodo's cheek. "I never understood how bleak the future could appear until I imagined a world without you in it."


"Well, you don't have to no more," Sam said firmly, his own threatening tears held back by the need to reassure Frodo. "And all's well as ends better, as my dad likes to say."


At that Frodo laughed, shakily, and said, "So he does, as I know from experience. And he has many other aphorisms; I'm very sure that by now I've heard them all." Sam laughed, too, and Frodo went on, "I like your father, Sam, very much indeed, but it would probably be best if he didn't live with us after we are married. There is a comfortable hobbit-hole in the Row below Bag End, next door to Rodger Twofoot, that we could give him as a wedding gift if you want."


There was so much in this speech that needed answering that Sam didn't know where to start. However, one thing stood out above the rest. "So we're to be married, are we?" he asked.


"As soon as we can make the arrangements. I'm not taking any chances."


Sam raised his eyebrows. "It's usual to ask first," he pointed out.


"So it is." Frodo took Sam's right hand in his. Solemnly he said, "Samwise Gamgee, will you marry me? Not for Bag End or its garden, or for any reason but love and love alone?"


Whilst the interior of a car parked by the side of the road might not be most hobbits' idea of a romantic location for a proposal of marriage, to Sam it was utterly perfect. "Yes, I'll marry you," he said, and then added slyly, "Sir."


A familiar spark leaped to life in those brilliant blue eyes and a thrill ran through Sam, a very pleasurable thrill. "Sam, do you remember what I said I'd do if you ever called me 'sir' again?"


"Very clearly, sir," Sam replied with deliberate provocation.


This kiss was far more satisfactory than the previous one, and went on for far, far longer. It eventually came to an end, as all good things must - though with the promise of being repeated many times over in the future.


Frodo sat back in his seat, refastened the belt, and looked at Sam. "Are you ready to go home, my love?" he asked as he had earlier in Sam's hospital room - but with what a difference now.


"I've never been readier for anything," Sam repeated with all his heart, and knew that this was no dream but blissful reality, and that at last every single one of his wishes, wishes that weren't, it turned out, foolish at all, was about to come true.


Frodo put the car in gear and pulled away from the kerb. The Rolls fairly flew along the road, like a great bird in flight, carrying Frodo and Sam away from Long Cleeve to their happy new life together at Bag End.



~end~